College of Education

Encouraging women in the STEM academic space

A limited number of South African girls who pass mathematics in Grade 12 pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields of study. This is a worrying statistic for gender equality in various workplaces. The under-representation of women (30%) in STEM translates into a loss of critical mass of talent, thoughts and ideas, which hinders countries from reaching their maximum development potential.

Prof Zingiswa Jojo (Department of Mathematics Education: CEDU) with Bona Lesedi Grade 12 girls

However, the good news is that there is someone who is concerned about the situation and is committed to its change. Unisa’s very own Prof Zingiswa Jojo from the Department of Mathematics Education in the School of Teacher Education is leading the charge to increase the number of girls studying mathematics in high school. Jojo is the founder of South African Women in Mathematical Science Activities (SAWMSA), which aims to groom and encourage young girls in high school to take up mathematics and science so they can pursue STEM-related courses at tertiary level.

Filling the void of women in STEM careers

Jojo’s involvement in the advancement of the girl child began when she was nominated to be a commissioner for the African Mathematical Union under the auspices of the African Union in 2017. "Initially I thought that I would find an association of women in mathematics so I could adopt one of their programmes but there was none," she said. "It then dawned on me that I had to initiate such an association that would serve to encourage more women to be competent in the mathematics academic space. I then decided that I should be actively involved in the grooming of girls at high school level so that they can fill the void of women in STEM careers later in their lives." Jojo added that she was lucky to have a team of seven female lecturers from Unisa who joined her from the Department of Mathematics Education in SAWMSA.

South African Women in Mathematical Sciences Association (SAWMSA) speakers, June 2019

In 2018, Jojo visited two schools in Pretoria - Bona Lesedi in Mamelodi East and Pretoria Central High School - to address Grade 12 learners on investment in women and girls in mathematics and science for a defined future. This talk in both schools was done in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Sciences; a day that falls on 11 February annually.

Popularising mathematics in schools for the girl child

"SAWMSA wants to debunk the myth that maths is a difficult subject and that STEM careers are only meant for men, so our intervention methods are geared towards making sure that the girls find it easy to solve mathematics problems in a relaxed and conducive environment," she says.

Prof Zingiswa Jojo (Department of Mathematics Education: CEDU) with Pretoria Central High School girls

Jojo says the team is proud to have seen a remarkable improvement in the performance of the learners’ results as both schools displayed a higher performance in mathematics.

"This has given our team confidence that we are on the right track to popularise mathematics in schools for the girl child. That is the reason that this year we are engaging girl learners from Grade 8 to lay a perfect foundation," she says.

The impact of SAWMSA has been so huge that it was recognised as a Unisa project during its official launch on 6 and 7 June 2019.

Jojo is heavily involved in the academic world to enhance the impact of SAWMSA to get more women in STEM careers. "We are living in the fourth industrial revolution age and we need to have more women in STEM careers so that they can be active participants in the economy since women are in the majority in South Africa. Our involvement with helping the girl child will hopefully impact on the individual girls’ lives and also benefit the country economically as well."

* By Pankhurst Mothiba

Publish date: 2020/08/05