Assoc Prof Amanda Weltman, theoretical physicist in UCT’s Department of Mathematics & Applied Mathematics, says it’s especially important for women pursuing a career in science to surround themselves with excellence, and to always aim high.
Each year on February 11, the United Nations marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It’s a chance to reflect on how the situation has improved for women working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and how much remains to be done. For instance, less than 30% of the world’s researchers in these fields are women.
The Conversation Africa’s Natasha Joseph asked researchers working in fields as varied as physics, technology law, palaeontology and biomathematics to share their lessons and experiences as women in STEM – and what those who want to follow in their footsteps should expect.
Mercy Muendo, PhD Student in Climate Change Technology Law University of Nairobi, Lecturer in Information Technology and the Law, Daystar University School of Law
My work is on the legal side of STEM, dealing with technology and the law. For women wanting to get involved in this field passion, innovation, creativity and knowledge are key. Technology is always changing, so you have to keep up to date with those shifts; constant learning is crucial. And, as with any lawyer – no matter your focus – you’ll need deep integrity, a sense of fairness and objectivity.
Dr Ntombizikhona Beaulah Ndlovu, iThemba LABS Post-doctoral Researcher: Department of Subatomic Physics
There’s this idea that clever people, who get the highest grades in school, are those who will go into STEM fields. But cleverness alone isn’t enough to succeed in science. Perseverance, mental strength and toughness as well as being book smart also matter. It can be exhausting to constantly have to try and prove that you are good enough. That’s probably particularly true for black women in a country like South Africa, where many sciences are dominated by white men.
There’s also a perception that STEM academics earn really high salaries. Unfortunately, that’s not true. If you’re heading for a career as an academic scientist, make sure it’s something you really want to do and will enjoy: that’ll keep you motivated to wake up in the morning and look forward to your work, even though you’re not earning six figures.
Professor Amanda Weltman, theoretical physicist, University of Cape Town
My father’s words are helpful here: “Listen to everyone, believe no one.” Take the time to listen to the experience, wisdom and advice of others; read about how others approach science, healthy habits and life – but then work it out for yourself, taking only what you need.
Science can be like a family. This brings a positive sense of wellbeing and togetherness, support, wonderful company and advice, ideally working with people who have your best interests at heart and a common goal. It can also bring about some rivalry and competition, which can be good or harmful. Try to find for yourself good mentors and collaborators and spend your energy on collaborations that feel good. The people you interact with really do matter and they do not need to look or be like you to be good mentors and collaborators.
Surround yourself with excellence. This is especially important for women. Don’t underestimate yourself, aim high and be around people and colleagues who intellectually challenge you.
Since I started with my father’s wisdom, I will end with my mother’s: always stick to your principles, trust your own gut and instincts. If you cannot see a path ahead that you want to follow, make your own.
Judith Koskey, PhD student in Environmental Studies at Egerton University and Mawazo Institute Fellow
Pursuing a STEM degree is an opportunity to do stimulating and meaningful work. To rise as a young woman in this space, it’s crucial to build up your confidence and stand up for yourself. Find a support system which could be made up of peers or other women in the STEM space. Also, networking is key if you’re to get past the walls that stand between you and hiring managers who aren’t used to seeing women in such spaces.
It is also important not to shy away from owning how important your contributions are: that is essential to your personal brand and reputation as a scientist. It’s also nurturing.
Amélie Beaudet, research fellow in palaeontology, University of the Witwatersrand
There is a long-standing tradition of maintaining a purely subjective classification between “male-like” and “female-like” jobs. Unfortunately, science is one of the most prejudiced disciplines in this binary world. Women need to know that science is for everyone, and that not being a man shouldn’t be considered an obstacle to their ambitions and aspirations.
This is particularly critical and relevant given that women’s achievements in science are often discarded from history, a phenomenon known as the “Matilda effect” that sees women scientists being effectively written out of history.
Palaeontology suffers from substantial conventional sex-related bias. Yet, women are part of the discipline’s history and have made major discoveries – from Mary Anning and the Jurassic fossil beds in England to Mary Leakey and sites in East Africa that held evidence of human ancestors. More people, especially women, should know these stories so they realise there’s plenty of space for them in the sciences.
Melisa Achoko Allela, PhD student in animation and Interactive Systems at Technical University of Kenya and 2018 Mawazo Institute Scholar
Women scientists embarking on their research journeys may not realise how many opportunities exist at the convergence of art and design, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Practical examples include enriching how we communicate scientific research outputs; how, aesthetically, can it be made more accessible and inclusive?
This kind of diversity of approaches fuels – even forces – innovation and creativity. And those qualities could help to support the economic growth envisioned by the Sustainable Development Goals.
Marilyn Ronoh, PhD Student in Biomathematics, University of Nairobi and Mawazo Institute Fellow
Planning for a PhD is an exciting, confusing time. You need a clear road map for your topic, your mentor or mentors, and funding opportunities. So it’s imperative for those who want to take this journey to participate in as many local and international conferences as possible that are relevant to their field of study. There you’ll learn about current research problems, methodology, possible supervision and opportunities for research grants.
When it comes to finding a mentor, make sure you choose someone who’s well versed in your area of research. Narrow your choices down, then use the Google Scholar search engine to assess their research impact before making your final decision.
Ntombizikhona Beaulah Ndlovu, Postdoctoral research fellow, iThemba LABS; Amanda Weltman, South African Research Chair in Physical Cosmology, Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, University of Cape Town; Amélie Beaudet, Postdoctoral fellow, University of the Witwatersrand; Judith Koskey, Part time lecturer and PhD student, Environmental Science, Egerton University; Marilyn Ronoh, PhD student and part-time lecturer in Mathematics, University of Nairobi; Melisa Achoko Allela, Assistant Lecturer in Animation and Interactive Media Design, Technical University of Kenya, and Mercy Muendo, Lecturer, Information Technology and the Law, Daystar University.
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Story: Natasha Joseph
Photo: Je'nine May