A guest blog by 2021 Mandela Washington Fellow Bongekile Matsenjwa
Growing up as the eldest child in my family, I was expected to set a good example for my siblings and lead them in the right direction. I learned to be disciplined and focused on achieving my goals. Growing up in the Kingdom of Eswatini in Manzini created an opportunity for me to break the many stereotypes about women and leadership.
I didn’t know any female engineers while growing up, hence, why the thought of becoming an engineer never crossed my mind. I didn’t know which career to venture into until I entered the 11th grade. I did a lot of research on careers in chemistry, physics, and biology. I also researched the job opportunities in these careers, the roles, and responsibilities.
I believe that engineering chose me. I have always been a person who enjoys solving complex problems. Math was a subject that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I found science very intriguing. I was part of the science club, making it to the national competitions more than once. My supervisor, assisting me with my science project, inspired me to take on engineering as a career. After conducting research on what engineers are, the work they do, and what it took for me to be a professional engineer, I knew that I had found my calling.
In my final year of undergraduate study for chemical engineering, I realized that in a class of 78 students, there were only 28 female engineer students. That means that about 36% of my class were females. The number of female engineers in Eswatini is much less than 36%, but the minority needs to form a network to support and encourage one another. They are the role models that will inspire the next generation of female engineers.
Being a female engineer professional in a male-dominated industry comes with many challenges. There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding female engineers. Women make up just 28% of those who hold computer- and math-related jobs, according to UNESCO research. Data indicates only 35% of women go into STEM, of which a mere 3% decide to pursue fields like IT. In Eswatini, female STEM professionals are less than 10%.
Stereotypes that hinder women and girls from taking on STEM careers:
- The belief that mathematics and science are difficult.
Solution 1: Research shows that more than 60% of the students who struggle with math or science at the high school level go for careers that require less or none of math and science. As people, we like to be comfortable and avoid anything that might interfere with our comfort zone. Even if the subject might sound challenging, work hard and go out of your way to understand the topic at hand. The brain is a very powerful tool. Your perspective toward the subject will change.
Solution 2: Teachers also play a vital role in shaping the students’ outlook toward the subject. They can assist students by motivating them, supporting them in their studies, and even going out of their way to ensure that students understand STEM concepts.
- The belief that girls cannot be strong or independent.
Solution 1: Parents have a part to play in destroying this stereotype. Boys from an early age are trained to work hard, be strong, and be providers for the home. Hence, the boy child may courageously take on any task or opportunity that will give him the reward he wants. On the other side, girls tend to be timid because they may be ‘protected’ from difficult tasks. This is not to imply that they are not equally capable, but they are not given the platform to showcase and develop their talent.
Solution 2: Parents can encourage girls from an early age to explore the world of science and technology. They can encourage their girls to attend extracurricular activities such as coding boot camps, science fairs, and robotics competitions. These activities can help increase interest in STEM education for girls.
- Women must focus only on their families.
Solution 1: African societies place a lot of pressure on women to focus more on their families at the expense of their careers. This is where [workforce] policies come in. The policymakers should consider and adapt the environment to accommodate women.
Solution 2: A young lady who has a good job is expected to get married, have children, and take care of her family while supporting her husband in his career. Some women deal with this by delaying getting married to build their careers and later establish their families. I chose this route. Being a female STEM professional is very demanding and requires time and attention.
Women need to start believing that as more of us make our way to the top, more of us make [up] the top. Women themselves need to build each other up and empower the next generation of female engineers.
Bongekile is the director of WomEng Eswatini, a nonprofit organization established to develop the next generation of women leaders in the engineering industry. WomEng Eswatini strives to create a more diverse engineering workforce through education and technology programs. Initiated in 2017 at the U.N. Headquarters, WomEng Eswatini aims to reach 1 million girls through STEM education and awareness initiatives.
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The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.