By Siphumelele Nhlapo, Human Resources Director for Schneider Electric Anglophone Cluster
Let me ask you a question. When you think of a scientist, who comes to mind? Is it Albert Einstein, the founder of the theory of relativity? Or Sir Isaac Newton, who gave us the concept of gravity? And then there’s Louis Pasteur, who invented the process of vaccination.
Let me ask you a second question. How many women scientists can you recall? Do you know Marie Curie, who was fundamental to the discovery of radiation? Or Janaki Ammal, India’s first female botanical scientist who advocated for the preservation of the country’s biodiversity? How about South Africa’s own Tebello Nyokong, a chemist who has been named amongst the most influential women in science and technology throughout Africa?
There are literally millions of women working in the field of science, and the difference they have made and continue to make is beyond measure. I wanted to both reject some stereotypes and also suggest one simple way to get more girls to think about science as a life-long passion.
Firstly, let’s put some falsehoods to bed. The old stereotype of girls being bad at science, technology, engineering and maths – those subjects known as STEM – is far too common and it could not be further from the truth. Girls outperform boys in exams in STEM subjects. Back in 2019, the United Nations provided data showing that 68% of girls got top grades in maths and science exams taken at 16, compared with 65% of boys.
The challenge we have is perception. And confidence. Far too often, girls wrongly believe that they’re not good at science; they think they’re best in the arts, and we have to break that stereotype too.
How do we do this? First of all, let’s give our girls the confidence and belief that’s going to change these perceptions. We should celebrate them when they do well and encourage them to see that they can be just as good as anyone, if not better, when it comes to learning STEM subjects. By acknowledging their abilities at a young age and reminding them of their abilities throughout their time at school, we’re helping these young girls believe that they can choose science as a career.
The second is the need for role models. We need successful women scientists and engineers that our girls can look up to and emulate. They need to feel that anything is possible, and the best way for us to do this is tell the story of female pioneers, both past and present, because there are so many women scientists and engineers who are making a difference every single day. What is important is for the media to give these women more of a spotlight.