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ITWeb TV: STEM female talent often lost in school system

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 12 Jan 2024
Zoning in on STEM development IITPSA president Senele Goba talks about advancing women and girls in STEM, SA's tech talent being part of the global IT community.

Representation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education still lags because female students are lost much earlier in the education system.

This was the word of Senele Goba, president and board chairperson of the Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA), in a wide-ranging interview with ITWeb TV.

Women and girls are particularly under-represented in STEM education, and consequently, in STEM careers. Data from Unesco shows that only 35% of all female students pursue STEM careers globally.

Gender disparity also exists in different STEM disciplines, with the lowest female enrolment observed in ICT, engineering, manufacturing and construction; and natural science, mathematics and statistics.

Speaking about one of the many challenges in retaining women in STEM, Goba believes the problem begins at school level where learners as young 10 years old lose interest in STEM-related subjects.

According to her, for many young children topics that are related to STEM are often very farfetched. “When a teacher relates a topic to you that you’ve never seen in your life, it really leaves it to your imagination to understand what it means.

“If the child moves on to grade nine where they are required to choose subjects, they will choose the subjects they can relate to a little bit better, and STEM does fall short in that aspect.

“You’ll find that less and less [learners] select STEM subjects. Usually, the criteria is that you must be doing well in the subject and if you don’t understand that subject, the chances of doing well in it are very slim. We get less and less learners choosing STEM subjects in grades nine and 10.”

Referencing a recent study, Goba said of the learners that entered high school in 2017, only 3.5% qualified to study a STEM subject at university. “This is a very dismal number and it needs to be corrected. It can only be corrected if we understand where we are losing them and my view is that we lose them very early.”

We don’t need everybody to study IT…we need to have smart professionals that know how to take advantage of technology and use it to make their jobs easier.

Senele Goba, IITPSA president.

This is why she decided to get involved with projects targeting learners as young as 10 years, to get them excited about STEM topics outside of the classroom.

“The classroom can be a bit formal and a bit of a scary activity. So you introduce them to STEM in a fun way, they do activities, experiments and get to understand what the topics that are taught really mean.

“With that activity you hope that they will grow and naturally like the subject. When they choose the STEM subjects, they are not just choosing them because they are good at them but they understand and have a genuine interest.”

Role model

In addition to being president of the IITPSA, Goba runs her own business that focuses on industrial automation and STEM education. She is also founder and director at 4IR Innovations, which specialises in industrial automation, technology innovation as well as educational technology and computer science education.

Senele Goba, president and board chairperson of the IITPSA. (Photo: Lesley Moyo)
Senele Goba, president and board chairperson of the IITPSA. (Photo: Lesley Moyo)

She is also engaged in STEM education projects, specifically focusing on technology, aiming to increase the number of STEM professionals both nationally and globally.

“It’s a long road. The STEM skills gap or the ICT skills gap is huge…we have skills shortages in a whole lot of different fields within the IT stream, but this keeps changing with the years because technology is advancing very quickly,” she says.

“With the introduction of artificial intelligence, things are moving at a much faster pace. We have to keep checking what the skills gap is at every point in time and more regularly.”

Addressing skills demand

To address the skills development challenge, Goba says there needs to be a more focused approach. “When we aim to instill or impart a skill, we have to look at the global demand.

“We’re no longer just South Africans who serve South Africa. The world has become one big connected body. If I say I’m going to just develop people for South Africa, especially in IT, I’m limiting us. There is huge potential in IT in South Africa, so we need to develop our talent according to the global trends and the demand for those trends.

“There have been a number of reports from the World Economic Forum and from different bodies that indicate the skills that are needed or required in the next few years, or skills that will be phased out in the next few years. We don’t need to threatened by those reports, we have to critically view them and determine how we are doing in alignment to that vision.

“We don’t need everybody to study IT…we need to have smart professionals that know how to take advantage of technology and use it to make their jobs easier.”

Remarking on the local ICT landscape as a whole, Goba is encouraged by what she’s witnessing, noting this is sparked by the involvement of young and old people in and outside the IT profession.

“As the IITPSA runs its initiatives, we get to see that there’s a lot of passion that is there and that is encouraging. We also find that a lot of young people in university aspire to become excellent professionals and our role as women in IT and IT professionals is to make sure that we don’t lose those people, but we help them to grow through the ranks and find their passion.”