As the country celebrates women delivering incredible achievements in their respective fields in August, this year also marks the year of celebrating Charlotte Maxeke, a black female science graduate who would have been 150 years old. With that said, it is therefore only befitting that light be shed on where South Africa stands in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, globally and on the continent.
According to the Florida Department of Education, STEM education is the deliberate combination of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics which offers students a hands-on approach to prepare them for a world which needs more researchers, engineers, computer scientists, and other professionals from the top STEM fields.
South Africa may be appearing to be below the international average accumulating only 30% of women pursuing a career in stem field however the country is still leading in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to UNESCO, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for about 28% of women in STEM careers. Having the highest portion of female graduates in Sub-Saharan Africa at 32%, and even more female ICT graduates, at 38%, according to a recent report. This has presented an incredible opportunity to share stories of incredible women defying the norm and taking a seat at the table in a male dominated industry.
Ndoni Mcunu (30) grew up in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal and studied Environmental Sciences, Mcunu is a researcher whose main focus is climate change, agriculture, biodiversity. She is currently pursuing a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) at the Global Change Institute at Witwatersrand University in South Africa, and is also a Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Black Women in Science (BWIS), a non-profit organisation which aims to deliver capacity development interventions targeting young black women scientists and researchers.
When asked what is the most important message she wants to send to young women considering a career in STEM? Her response was simple: “Aim to be the most well-informed professional in the room. Take time to improve the skills and the knowledge to get you at a professional level. Don’t put too much emphasis on the fact that there is not enough of us, but rather, on what expertise you need to stand out and to stay in. The glass ceiling can be broken by gaining skills and expert knowledge” said Mcunu.
Named Africa’s youngest brain surgeon at the age of 29 in 2017, Dr Ncumisa Jilata from Umtata in the Eastern Cape, graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB), from Umtata’s Walter Sisulu University in 2009. In 2017 she completed her fellowship with the Council of Neurosurgeons of South Africa and officially earned her title as one of five black South African women in the field – and the youngest neurosurgeon on the continent. She is an expert in her field, treating everything from brain tumors to the effects of stroke. She also addresses issues related to the nervous system, including degenerative issues of the spine.
As exciting as it is for her to be in the midst of the few female neurosurgeons, she has put her efforts behind bridging the gap in percentages of men versus women in the field. Her desire is to have foundation that will assist her to share her services and knowledge about the neuro field with the disadvantaged. Recognised as one of South Africa’s women breaking barriers, her life story truly embodies persistence, bravery and the importance of education.