having lunch recently with my partner’s cousin, her husband and their two
little girls, when the husband told us an amusing story about the youngest, who
class at school was making a big deal about Valentine’s Day, the girl had some
rather pointed questions for her teacher. “Why does my Valentine have to be a
boy?” she asked. “Why does Valentine’s have to be pink?” she added, before
declaring, “I like green.”
As the story
was told, we all chuckled, but in truth my heart was swelling with pride. At
six she was bravely challenging gender stereotypes that so many go through life
morning I had been reading an article on The Conversation, written by
Stellenbosch University associate professor Nox Makunga.
article Makunga argued that children’s ideas about what their gender means for
their intellectual capacity are formed before they turn six.
that for this reason, the prevalent stereotype that only boys are good at maths
and science is doing incredible harm. “Research has shown that girls hardly
ever see adult women doing jobs that involve science, technology, engineering
and mathematics (STEM) on television programmes,” wrote Makunga.
that these stereotypes perpetuated by the media, alongside a lack of visible
women involved in STEM sectors to act as role models, have a huge impact on
young girls’ career choices.
the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, urged for greater
investments in teaching
STEM subjects to all women and girls, as well as equal access to these
that “discriminatory stereotypes” prevent women and girls from having equal
access to STEM education. “As a trained engineer and former teacher, I know
that these stereotypes are flat wrong,” he added.
published by Unesco shows that women globally make up less than 30% of people
working in STEM careers.
spirited young relative may end up working in one of the STEM sectors.
She has a
mother who works in information technology – in fact, before joining us for
lunch, she had spent that Sunday morning uploading new software to her
employer’s servers. The girl’s father works in the telecoms sector.
points out that at university level in South Africa, equal numbers of men and
women are enrolling in STEM degrees, but by the time you get to postgraduate
level the numbers are skewed in favour of men, indicating that women are
dropping out of the system.
working in STEM sectors who have written about the problem refer to this as the
National University lecturer Merryn McKinnon, in an article published last year
on The Conversation, argued that simply trying to get more women to study STEM
degrees without addressing the broader systemic prejudices that women face
would achieve nothing.
So while my
young relative is growing up in a house with two parents who work in STEM
fields, she will – like any other woman – still face an uphill struggle in her
bid to get her tertiary qualifications. And going out into the world of work,
she’ll face another layer of oppression.
On the same
Sunday that we were having lunch, across the Atlantic, a former Uber site
reliability engineer, Susan Fowler, took to her blog to detail the sexual
harassment and human resources negligence she had experienced at the technology
company. Fowler said she was sexually propositioned by a senior manager and
reported it to the company, with screen grabs of the inappropriate message.
staff, according to Fowler, described the manager’s act as an “innocent
mistake” and refused to discipline him. Uber has since launched a full
investigation into the matter.
harassment appears very prevalent in the tech sector – a recent report by
Elephant in the Valley states that 60% of all US women with tech careers who
were surveyed had experienced unwanted sexual advances at work.
In the wake
of Fowler’s allegations against Uber, technology publications have highlighted
discrimination that women face in the workplace. Many of the articles make for
damning reading and paint pictures of corporate cultures that essentially
condone sexual harassment.
If we are
going to do something about gender inequality in the STEM sectors, we can’t
limit the conversation to role models and programmes to uplift young girls.
We also need
to talk about systemic prejudice in academia and the workplace that affect
women on a daily basis. Even more importantly, men need to understand that
harassment in the workplace is a violent crime and not an “innocent mistake”.
This article originally appeared in the 9
March edition of finweek. Buy
and download the magazine here.