“What it is like for Women in STEM in South Africa” — Panel Event.

Robyn Farah
Oct 7, 2017 · 10 min read

On the 19th September 2017, KATO and Women in Tech Cape Town held an event “Women in Tech Panel: What it is like for Women in STEM in SA”. KATO partnered with the Canadian initiative Kamloops Innovation to bring you two events that had in mind the goal of creating a space where a conversation could happen to better understand “what is like for a women in STEM”. The first event was held in Canada on the 12th September and the second was hosted by KATO in Cape Town.

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There was an exciting panelist of South African females working in various forms of STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths) that told us their story and answering questions from the audience, whether it is how they have reached goals and discussion hurdles they have overcome.

The panel were:
Cleo Forster
Cleo is an civil engineer by training, a wind and solar project developer by profession and a philanthropist at heart. She has spent her career thus far dabbling in the many environments that engineering can offer… from the side of the N3 laying pavement, to the frantic pace that was a tech startup and recently the political disaster that is utility scale renewables.

Mmaki Jantjies
Mmaki is currently a Senior Lecturer and Head of the Information Systems academic department at the University of the Western Cape. She has previously served as a Head of Department at the North West University department of Information Systems. Mmaki also researches in the field of ICT4 Development, focusing on how education and small businesses can be supported through mobile and electronic platforms. Mmaki has a passion for youth education and works with various NGO’s to upskill teachers in high schools with ICT skills, to use in classrooms. She also mentors graduate students to open and run technology clubs in underprivileged schools in South Africa with most of the clubs focusing on training young women and girls.

Viola Milner
Viola graduated from the University of Cape Town in 2013 with her MSc in Civil Engineering. She started with Mott MacDonald (previously PD Naidoo and Associates) in 2013, to work in solid waste and water engineering. In September 2016 she joined JG Afrika (previously Jeffares & Green) in the municipal department. Her civil engineering work experience ranges from integrated waste management, environmental management, stormwater management, water infrastructure design and construction monitoring. She believes that engineering requires technical expertise as well as social and environmental sensitivity and actively seeks to maintain and further develop this integrated approach in all her projects. She has been actively involved in Young Professional Forums, both within her company and Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) since 2013. She is currently the CESA YPF Chairperson of the Western Cape and member on CESA YPF National EXCO.

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What we learnt from the Cape Town event:

We decided not to dictate the whole event, but to rather give you a summary of what we thought would be the most beneficial information to anyone reading this who want to know what it is like for a female in STEM based in South Africa.

The italics and bold statements are comments that we felt stood out, we are not saying it is exclusively South Africans or females that feel this way, but they are remarks that stood out for us.

How did you get into the field you are in?

  • Mmaki: I was working in ICT then I moved to academia and found I really enjoyed academia more.
  • Viola: My mom said your sister is the creative one so you are going to have to do something sensible so I studied engineering
  • Cleo: I wanted to do Eco’s and my dad said I’m not paying for that so did civil engineering instead

Do you have female mentors?

  • Viola: A rare occurrence is that we do have a senior female and she is even working reduced hours. She worked her way up doing her own thing and then returned at a higher level rather than working her way up within the company. I “stalk” more senior women and go talk to them at conferences nerve wracking as that may be.
  • Cleo: Difficult because the more senior females keep leaving.

Do kids really need to be taught about the digital environment?

  • Mmaki: Kids in the middle and upper class may be growing up with ipads but firstly that doesn’t mean they they know what is actually going on they just pushing the screen to play games and aren’t necessarily familiar with things we take for granted like how to use a work processor or the internet and this is especially true of children from lower income backgrounds where access to the internet and digital devices is a scarce. The digital era is in many ways widening the gap between the poor and wealthy.
  • Robyn (Host): For students with English as a second or third language take for granted that most coding languages are in “English”.

Does your company have training or a procedure for sexual harassment issues?

  • Mmaki: In a unionised environment the union takes care of that
  • Viola: Recently brought up the need to talk about mental health and sexual harassment with my bosses and they open to it but I will probably have to be the driving force behind it. I have also heard of stories where someone was dismissed only to be rehired by the same company a couple of years later.
  • Cleo:No, and there was a situation at a previous company where it wasn’t handled well at all. It was allowed to spread as a rumour around the office and in the end the female was seen to have reported something silly and the male didn’t really get any heat or embarrassment out of the situation.

How did you find your passion? (Question from a 22 yr old student)

  • Mmaki: If you had asked me at 22 if I wanted to be a an academic I wouldn’t have thought so but tried it out and turns out I really enjoy it.
  • Viola: Trial and error. Talk to people and find out what they actually do so you can narrow your options then try it out and if you like it great if you don’t try something else.
  • Cleo:I still don’t know what I’m doing! Younger people seem to think that you have it all figured out by the time you are 30 but try not to worry too much what people say you should be doing and follow your instinct about what you enjoy

Do you find working in a male dominated environment impacts who you socialise with ( do you have more guy friends?)

  • Mmaki: No
  • Viola: No, but I do value my female colleagues who provide a space to vent
  • Cleo: Agree female colleagues are helpful

What is it like working in a male dominated environment?

  • Mmaki: Being in tech and academia is like being in a double male dominated environment since tech is male dominated and higher levels of academia is also white male dominated.
  • Viola: While the men are not outright sexist and are supportive they do make annoying ‘jokes’ like when you rinsing you coffee cup: “I see you in the kitchen where women belong” or “what’s the point of training you, you just going to leave and be a housewife with kids.” I try to think about clever retorts with fellow female colleagues instead of letting it get to me.
  • Cleo: You understand why female prefer to work in the cities once you have been into more rural areas. It’s like being transported back to the 1960’s. Not only with regards to women but other things too. The attitude seems to be this is the way things are done if you don’t like it then leave, nevermind how backwards it is. I have less patience with those ‘jokes’ Viola was talking about and tend to just get really irritated and they see on my face that I’m not impressed.

How do you balance motherhood and career?

  • Mmaki: If I have had a rough day at work I’ll get myself chocolate and sprite ( soda) and sit in the car in the garage rocking to my favourite music before I go into house so I am not in a bad mood when I greet my kids. When you have kids you realise how much time you wasted before, nothing is done at the last minute you need to be more organised that being said it is also about juggling and going from one thing to the next, ordering take-aways ( HEALTHY ones ;) ) while in a meeting because I’m not going to home in time to cook or organising a uber to pick up the nanny with the kids coz I don’t have time to be a taxi. Kids are a joy and will remind you of the important things. Having a good support structure is good and I have a person who helps look after the kids and I take the washing to the laundromat.
  • General discussion: Younger women think they have to choose between career and motherhood because it seems impossible to juggle both since companies don’t seem to be that accommodating of working flexible hours even though they not outright against women in leadership

Is there a gender pay gap, how does it come about?

  • Mmaki: Men will apply for promotion every year until they get it while women tend to build up a case and then after a couple of years with some persuasion apply for a promotion. Also men will tell you about every tiny achievement and want to discuss pay raises or promotion.
  • Viola: I don’t think it is an explicit aim to pay women less but comes about because of differing opportunities especially if a woman has children and may need flexible hours. In my experience graduates start with the same salary but after 5 years a women may have a child, take maternity leave ( usually about 4 months) and need to work reduced hours 4- 6 hours or flexiblily so while the males get managerial positions with people under them it is thought that a woman can’t fulfil a managerial role because they are not at the office ALL the time and that is where the divergence starts.
  • Cleo: After working at a company for a couple of years I was talking to a new recruit fresh out of university only to discover we were being paid the same. Because it is awkward enough working in this male dominated environment the awkward conversations about pay raises are even more awkward.

Are there any quirks to working in a male dominated industry, how you dress or act? E.g. do you have to have multiple changes of clothes to look feminine but also sometimes hardcore?

  • Mmaki: I wear what I want, they must just accept me for who I am.
  • Viola: Hasn’t figured out how people manage to wear dresses when you have to put steel tip boots on when you go to building sites.
  • Cleo: Looking ‘feminine’ took a bit of getting used to, keeps a pair of heels under her desk if she has to look a bit more snazzy for a meeting. Most of the time I’m walking around in sneakers
  • General discussion: If you put a bit more effort on a particular day the assumption is you have an interview or something, ie what you wear gets more attention.

For more information contact:

Robyn Farah: +27 (0)713328121, robyn@kato.global

Bianca Cherkaev: bianca.cherkaeva@gmail.com

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Information from the Canada event:

On September 12th Kamloops Innovation hosted a women in Tech panel apart of their celebration of the Startup Canada Awards week.The event had in mind the goal of creating a space where a conversation could happen, so both women and men were encouraged to join from all backgrounds, companies, and organizations to get together to celebrate the vibrant and growing tech and entrepreneurial community in Kamloops.

The main points from the panel :

  • We need to create a support system for each other, as women we Should the uplifting each other and showing each other the ropes. Creating a support system is the most important thing as it allows for women to share their experiences, to mentor each other and to know that there is someone out there like you who understands.
  • It is important to be willing to have courageous conversations and to be okay with being “one of the boys ” for a bit. These conversations will lead to you” Earn your stripes” . So you have to be willing to take that step and be ready to start those discussion, it will get you out of your comfort zone.
  • Learn to toot your own horn; Learning to appreciate all of the good stuff that you’ve done : the successful meetings, reports, projects and more… Those successes are very important in the journey of a woman in entrepreneurship. So celebrate your success and failures, those hurdles will ultimately allow you to grow as a woman, whether in the professional or personal area of your life.
  • Call people out if you need to. This is an important step because there are situations that you’re put in where you won’t know how to react but it is okay to call people out. If we do not have a call to action how are we supposed to share our story. So call them out for comments, jabs or whatever it may that affected you
  • The most important takeaway from the panel was that it would not be easy at all, but in the end with your hard work, dedication, tears, and motivation it would absolutely be worth it. Our hopes is that by starting this conversation now, we can inspire change.

This was an amazing event and very well attended by a lot of incredible women and men, we wanted to show that this event was not just about women but about the supportive men in our lives and community. The panel was about uplifting each other and empowering each other; it was about having a real, honest discussion about values, stereotypes, and perceived work/life balance. The panel was moderated by Stefanie Butland, who is managing an international community of scientists at ROpenSci, and featured distinguished panelists such as Elycia Buckley, (President of the Computer Science Club at Thompson Rivers University), Tammy Uyeda, (Founder and CEO of FitSpark), and Paris Gaudet, (Executive Director of Innovation Island).

For more information contact:

Assetou Coulibaly


Robyn Farah

Written by

Innovation to better our world. Committed to pushing hardware and tech growth to better the world that we live in and connecting people in tech and innovation.

Robyn Farah

Written by

Innovation to better our world. Committed to pushing hardware and tech growth to better the world that we live in and connecting people in tech and innovation.

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