top of page

Girls in Science! Scientific Power!

International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated on the 11 February.

On 11 February 2021, the 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly will be held at the United Nations Headquarters virtually. The assembly’s theme is “Beyond the Borders: Equality in Science for Society”.

In South Africa, only 13% of graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields are women, even though South Africa is ranked 19th out of 144 countries in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report.

STEM skills are the foundation which the country’s development and future prosperity is built. Career fields stemming from STEM are the driving force behind innovation and the technological transformation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This under-representation of women in STEM directly translates into the loss of a critical mass of skills, talent, thoughts and ideas, which in turn inhibits countries from reaching their maximum development potential.

The UNESCO Measuring Gender Equality in Science and Engineering: the SAGA Toolkit in 2017, indicated that worldwide the percentage of female researchers was about 30% of total researchers.

(Image Source: AAS - Women in Stem Africa Report 2020)

Approximately one in three researchers were female in Europe and Northern America (34.8%) and sub-Saharan Africa (31.0%) Latin America and the Caribbean had the highest share of female researchers, followed by 45.8% in Northern Africa and 38.0% Western Asia. . In contrast, the share of women researchers falls to 24.9% and 24.3% in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. While Central and Southern Asia had the lowest female researchers among the global regions (SAGA Toolkit, 2017).

The 2020 African Academy of Sciences, Women in Stem Report indicates that 43% to 47% of researches in South Africa are in the science field. South Africa has the highest number of female researchers on the continent. We should be proud about this and celebrate it.

(Image Source: AAS - Women in Stem Africa Report 2020)

However the loss of women graduates in STEM fields of study as well as their transition to the Science and Engineering work environment is illustrated in the 2014 scissor diagram on Figure 3 from the SAGA Toolkit Report. (Image Source: Figure 3 SAGA Toolkit Report)

This is disheartening and something we need to address as society as a whole.

Things are changing slowly, but there are still many challenges both locally and globally, discriminatory laws, social and cultural norms impact the lives of women daily.

Women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of political and economic leadership, and even oppressed.

As high as 1 in 5 women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 report experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12 month period (UN SDG Goal 5).

In 18 countries around the world husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.

In 39 countries daughters and sons do not have equal inheritance rights, in some South Africa cultures this is true too.

While 49 countries lack laws protecting women from domestic violence (UN SDG Goal 5).

Statistics South Africa noted that in 2017 approximately 17% of girls aged 12 to 19 years who were not attending an educational institution reported to have fallen pregnant in the 12 months prior to the survey. KwaZulu-Natal had the highest proportion, followed by Eastern Cape and Western Cape (Statistics South Africa, 2018).

The United Nations notes that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights, while heightening the inequalities for girls and women across all aspects of life, from health and the economy, to security and social protection (UN Population Fund).

Gaps between men and women in STEM fields vary from country to country (SAGA Toolkit; The African Academy of Sciences) due to

  • Different sociocultural and environmental factors. Such as girls forced in marriage, even at a young age, girls having to leave school to take care of family members

  • Bias and discrimation, relating to cultural or family norms and traditions. Such as a girl needs to be subservient to the men, and not being allowed to be educated or if they are educated having to abide by family traditions and not work in areas they have knowledge in.

  • Negative attitudes towards STEM. This may be reinforced by teachers who say “boys are good at Maths” or the perception that the fields of STEM are masculine and women should not do ‘masculine’ jobs.

  • Girls’ own low self belief and self assessment in their own ability in achieving in the STEM fields. “Research suggests that girls assess their mathematical abilities lower compared with boys with similar mathematical achievements. In addition, girls are likely to believe that they must be exceptional to succeed in male dominated science fields.” (The African Academy of Sciences, pg. 14)

(Image Source: The African Academy of Science: Women in Stem Africa Report.)

So how do we help our girl students? How do we change these realities and perceptions?

The SAGA Toolkit highlights the fact that “there are serious questions which remain largely unanswered, for example:

  • How can cultural bias be overcome?

  • Does greater involvement and success of girls in STEM subjects at school lead to Science and Engineering careers for more women?

  • What hurdles do women face throughout their scientific education at secondary and higher education levels and in Science and Engineering careers that prevent them from reaching senior positions?

  • If women face a glass ceiling and a sticky floor, what can be done to eliminate these barriers?

  • How can faculty positions (i.e. tenure track) take into consideration work-life balance?

  • How can gender bias in the review processes for assigning new research grants, filling posts, or designing new research policies, be tackled?

  • Which currently existing Science Technology Innovation (STI) policies are biased for or against women in STEM?

  • Which STI policy instruments are adequate to promote gender equality in all career stages?

  • How can the gender dimension be promoted in research agendas and content?” (SAGA Toolkit)

These are complex and difficult quesitons to be asked and addressed. We can all begin in a small way in our home, school and community.

As parents and teachers we have a very important and influential role to play.

Supporting our daughters, and encouraging them to explore and learn whatever they want to do.

Not saying “It’s a man’s job”! We are all able to have an impact in one way or another.

I am sharing a short activity booklet: STREAM INVENTOR (link here) to hopefully spark some ideas and encourage you to do activities with your children, and especially your girls which may be perceived to be “boys” games or activities.

Let's celebrate and promote women in Science, and continue to narrow the divide, so that we truly have gender equality not just in the sciences, but in all aspects of life.

I look forward to hearing from you.


UNESCO (2017)Measuring Gender Equality in Science and Engineering: the SAGA Toolkit, SAGA Working Paper 2, Paris.

UNESCO (June 2020) New UIS Data for SDG 9.5 on Research and Development (R&D)

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Statistics South Africa. Gender Statistics

S4 (August 2019) Why South Africa needs more women in STEM?

World Economic Forum. (2018). Global Gender Gap 2018.

Statistics South Africa. Vulnerable Groups Series 111 report: The social profile of children aged 7-17 years, 2002-2016. Report 03-19-04

UN Population Fund. (March 2020). Covid-19 A Gender Lens Guidance Note.

The African Academy of Sciences (April 2020) Women in Stem Africa Report.

Karen Walstra (2021). Stream Inventor Booklet,


bottom of page