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  • Children’s ideas about what their gender means for their intellectual capacity are formed before they turn 6. One idea that’s particularly pervasive and dangerous is that only boys are good at maths and science.

    Popular media exacerbates the problem. Research has shown that girls rarely see women doing jobs that involve science, technology, engineering and maths on television programmes.

    These early stereo-types may lead to girls developing a “fear” of these subjects. They become afraid to enter fields that are based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Statistics compiled by Unesco reveal that, globally, women make up less than 30% of people working in STEM careers.

    The situation is worse in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

    In South Africa, the problem is worsened by the country’s apartheid history.

    Black women are still struggling to access scientific careers. Those who do may fall victim to the “leaky pipeline” syndrome: they start science degrees, but don’t continue to postgraduate level or work in STEM fields.

    It’s a complex problem. So, how can it be tackled? To start, there should be a concerted effort to raise girls in a way that encourages them to ignore stereotypical norms. The country’s basic education system also needs to be improved when it comes to teaching maths and science so that they become attractive subject choices. But it will also require funding for bursaries, improved science communication and boosting scientists’ visibility so that young people – especially girls – realise they, too, can become scientists.

    There have been some positive steps towards getting more young people, particularly women, involved in studying STEM subjects. South Africa has unveiled a number of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes to encourage women to enrol for STEM subjects.

    For example, black women held the largest share of National Research Foundation bursary support last year. In engineering and computer sciences, funding was increased more for women though men still get the lion’s share.

    Retention levels are another problem. Almost equal numbers of males and females enter undergraduate science-based degrees.

    But at postgraduate levels, the number of men is higher, suggesting female students have left the system.

    This isn’t unique to South Africa, but what drives it is different – the fact that apartheid, for the most part, kept black people out of universities.

    Patriarchy is a common global factor in holding girls back. In many cultures, women are expected to be subservient to men, and the idea that “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” persists.

    There’s another issue at play: young people in Africa rarely know any scientists.

    They don’t see scientists at work, learn about local scientists in school nor, often, understand what scientists do. To fix this, more science communication and public engagement of society in science is needed.

    All media should be geared towards breaking stereotypes linked to science and technology. With clever campaigns, girls will realise that they can become scientists and work in technology and innovation environments – and thrive.

    Mentorship is another possible approach. Research has shown just how valuable it is for women in STEM to work with mentors.

    Lastly, society needs more messages that counter stereotypes. Schools, for instance, could teach pupils about the important contributions made by female scientists. . – The Conversation

    Nox Makunga is associate professor: Medicinal plant biotechnology, Stellenbosch University