The Fourth Industrial Revolution is fuelling the global economy and creating new employment opportunities as advances in technology rapidly transform how we live, work and communicate. As South Africa rides this wave of innovation and looks at how to future-proof the workforce and ready our youth for a new world, a critical issue is being overlooked: we are leaving girls behind.
Here are some sobering numbers from Statistics SA: women account for a mere 23% of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) professionals in South Africa. Of those, only 17% are in leadership roles, and these numbers are significantly less for women of colour.
In 2021, to help address the massive gender gap in STEM, fintech specialist e4 launched the Girls in STEM programme, in partnership with Melisizwe Computer Lab Project, offering girls in underprivileged areas the support they need to pursue careers in STEM post matric.
Adri Führi, e4’s chief financial officer and an advocate for female-led initiatives in the IT sector, says there are many reasons for girls being overlooked and, in some cases, actively choosing to steer clear of careers in STEM. “There is a general lack of support from parents and teachers, minimal exposure to the different careers women can enter with STEM subjects, a lack of female role models in these spheres and an unawareness of the ability of technology to transform systems and lives.”
With youth unemployment a crisis in South Africa – currently at almost 64% according to Statistics SA – and the STEM sector where most jobs lie, this is a real problem for young women in the job market, many of whom are leaving school unable to type out a CV on a computer or send it via email.
The Girls in STEM programme is changing the narrative. Launched in Gauteng with a total of 30 girls from two schools, it is providing tutoring and mentorship sessions, and offering activities such as boot camps, excursions and site visits, where the girls learn about coding and robotics as well as life skills like teamwork and problem-solving. It starts in Grade 9, the crucial year when subject choices are made, and continues for five years, introducing learners to science, software development, engineering and robotics in an interactive and engaging way to keep them invested and interested.
Melisizwe developed a multiple certification approach, enabling the girls to be certified at each level throughout programme, so if they have to exit school early for whatever reason, they have a certificate to assist them in future job searches.
Führi says the response to the programme has been amazing and they have seen a definite increase in the girls’ mathematics and science marks since its launch. “We are facing some challenges, though, such as internet connectivity and getting the girls up to date with their school curriculum due to COVID-19 lockdowns interrupting their schoolwork. We would also obviously love to reach more girls in the future.”
More funding is needed in girls’ education in STEM, with a focus on technology, according to Führi. “To effect meaningful change, we need forward-thinking and impactful investment from corporates. We are calling on corporates across South Africa to get on board and help us scale this project so we can roll it out nationally. By working together, we can ensure a brighter future for girls in STEM and create a sustainable pipeline of future IT-qualified employees and leaders. If done right, I believe the impact could be extremely effective.”