Female engineers unpack persistent barriers to STEM fields

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 23 Jun 2022
Silindile Dlamini, security consulting engineer at Cisco Systems.
Silindile Dlamini, security consulting engineer at Cisco Systems.

Removing the barriers hindering women from entering the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields is the answer to South Africa’s enormous ICT skills gap and high unemployment rate.

This is the word from South African women engineers, expressing their views to ITWeb regarding the persistent challenges facing women who work within the local STEM fields.

Speaking in light of International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), they also highlighted the barricades faced by many young women.

Taking place annually on 23 June, INWED is an international awareness campaign celebrating the work and achievements of women engineers. The day was initially launched in the UK by the Women's Engineering Society as a national initiative. It provides an important opportunity to raise the profile of women engineers and encourage governments, educational organisations and corporates to support and create more avenues for women to enter the field.

It has never been more important to address the significant software engineering skills shortage in SA and across the globe.

According to the 2021 ICT Skills Survey, firms are grappling to fill thousands of ICT vacancies, as the skills dearth persists in SA.

Dimakatso Makinta − recently promoted from customer support engineer to threat response analyst at cyber security firm Mimecast − is of the view that ensuring gender diversity is a crucial part to filling the skills gap in the local ICT sector.

Statistics show South African women only make up about 23% of the ICT sector's workforce.

Dimakatso Makinta, threat response analyst at Mimecast.
Dimakatso Makinta, threat response analyst at Mimecast.

“Cyber security specifically is facing a skills gap crisis. A gender diversity gap further narrows the pool of people pursuing the ICT field. Almost half of the engineering and technology workforce is lost because companies fail to recruit more women into the field,” comments Makinta.

“By encouraging more women to get into tech industries, we can help fill more empty positions and propel technological advancements for the digital economy. We could also improve the overall pipeline of engineers if we showed girls and women, and other minorities, that engineering is a career one should certainly consider.”

In addition to underrepresentation, Makinta believes other obstacles discouraging women from entering the field include the lack of access to resources; the lack of affordable quality education; and the gender disparity that still plagues many ICT firms, with men earning higher salaries than women and still being considered as better leaders.

Increasing the participation of women will ensure diverse teams and help lower the high levels of unemployment, she adds.

Overcoming bias

The imbalance between men and women in the global technology sector is unlikely to be remedied unless organisations, schools and universities work together to change entrenched perceptions about the tech industry, according to a PwC report.

In September, ICT firms Cisco, SAP, BCX and Dell told ITWeb their company culture is changing, as they prioritise paving multiple pathways and introduce initiatives to ensure women enter and pursue careers traditionally considered as being for “men only”.

Silindile Dlamini, security consulting engineer at Cisco Systems, tells ITWeb that government and the private sector can help reduce SA’s ICT skills gap if they focus on removing workplace systems premised on unconscious biases and societal influences, and introduce more programmes to encourage more women to enter the fields.

“We are certainly not seeing enough women entering the technology industry in South Africa and those that do enter the industry have no longevity, as they quickly move to less technical roles.

“The engineering field is usually a male-dominated industry, where men naturally form allies, which creates entry barriers for women and decreases the accessibility of information − making access to certain spaces almost impossible,” says Dlamini.

While there has been progress in creating greater workplace diversity in SA’s STEM fields, there are still many barriers facing those who are in the industry and factors discouraging those who are looking to enter the sector, she points out.

Other challenges, she adds, include limited access to female mentors within the sector and the long working hours. “Being an engineer requires a lot of after-hours and working weekends, which is not the best for moms and caregivers.

“The real issues stem from early education all the way up to tertiary level, where boys have been channelled more towards technology, maths and science related careers, while girls were encouraged to align themselves more with accounting, business economics and home economics-related careers.”