Honorable Minister of Information, Communication, and Technology;
Representatives from the DPM Office;
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honored to join you today as SADC member states work together to engage and promote more women in science, engineering, and technology. This issue remains at the top of our priorities as the United States Mission in Swaziland and we hope to continue to expand our programs and networks in this space.
The pace at which technology is revolutionizing our societies indicates we will have a very different world in the next 5 to 10 years. The World Economic Forum’s Council on the Future of Software and Society predicts that many of the emerging technologies we are hearing about today – such as large-scale 3D printing, driverless cars, and implantable mobile devices – will reach a tipping point by 2025. These products and creations will transform our world in unknown ways.
Today, I want to touch on the role of women in science in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Here’s the blunt truth: without women’s participation, any gains would be lopsided, at best, and unsustainable, at worst.
We know that women and girls across the world suffer higher levels of poverty, have fewer educational opportunities, are compensated at lower levels than male counterparts for their labor, and lack access to legal institutions. Therefore, it is critical that women’s voices, at each level, find representation in collaborative solutions that will impact on them.
Science, technology, creativity, and innovation are all needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. How can we end poverty or reduce hunger without food scientists, social entrepreneurs, and economists? We need water engineers to think about solutions for clean water and sanitation, and to reduce the likelihood and impact of increasingly devastating droughts. Climate change will worsen our ability to both predict and recover from catastrophes – so how do we prepare ourselves for these scenarios?
We start early by investing human, financial, educational, and physical resources into the STEM fields. As the U.S. Mission, our focus has been on exposing young people across Swaziland to different technologies and helping them to apply new techniques to solve age-old problems. Through these types of programs, young people are envisioning the world and their futures differently. Along with our incredible partners, including the MTN Foundation and Swaziland Foundation for STEM Education, we are helping young people to not only think creatively but also to use what they already have to solve problems. This is the beauty of STEM – it is not about replicating what other countries do but rather sharing ideas and discovering the optimal solution for the local context.
In recent years, we have expanded our STEM programming to elevate the participation of more girls and women in these male-dominated fields. In their early teen years, girls start to self-select out of STEM fields because they, too, believe these areas are reserved for boys. When this link to STEM is weakened or broken, young women miss out on incredible tools for building their skills in problem-solving, creativity, analysis, and collaboration. This also places girls at a disadvantage in preparing for the future world of work, where up to 90 percent of jobs will require skills in information and communications technology.
For young women who pursue studies in STEM at tertiary institutions, many of them share stories of being grossly outnumbered by men in their classes. These same patterns repeat themselves in the work place, too. Many women are leaving STEM fields due to the lack of opportunities for coaching, mentoring and growth as well as discriminatory practices and behaviors among colleagues and leadership.
So, we have to encourage a robust pipeline of girls and women in STEM that attracts, develops, and retains promising talent. This is the primary goal of one of our new partners in STEM, Women in Engineering, or WomEng. WomEng is a global organization based in South Africa whose aim is to develop the next generation of women leaders in engineering. They have worked with a cadre of Swazi women engineers and are on track to launch a chapter of the program here. With their signature pink hard hats, a key component of WomEng’s mission also involves mentoring and educating girls about the engineering sector. Programs such as these are critical to encourage girls to take up – and stick with – studies in STEM.
Aside from helping to launch WomEng Swaziland, we have provided numerous resources over the years to expose more young people to and encourage their robust participation in STEM initiatives. Since 2015, our coding and robotics engagements have grown to include nearly 50 schools and more than 400 young people who have all demonstrated a sustained interest in engineering and technology. For those who may not specifically be interested in coding, our program leaders can provide insights on how the skills learned in a coding workshop can help the girl who hopes to become a chemical engineer. For those who are into coding, our engagement with the Afterschool Robotics Clubs has produced a robust cadre of students prepared to participate in the LEGO League National Robotics Competition. In preparation for this competition, students have to identify and research a problem, formulate a possible solution, and present their work to a panel of judges. At one judging panel, a team was asked why they only had one female member, to which a young man replied that girls just aren’t as smart as boys. I was especially pleased to learn that at the end of the competition, an all-girls team was the overall winner. They proved that young man wrong, but they will continue to have to deal with his mentality as they rise through the ranks of their careers. This underscores why our investments in girls in STEM are so important today, and why we all have to be committed to following through on supporting these girls through each stage of their development.
In addressing real-world challenges, technology should be at the forefront. Earlier this year, we partnered with one of Swaziland’s budding tech companies, SWAGAA, and schools from the Shiselweni region to begin developing a mobile application for girls to learn about gender-based violence. These young women learned about building codes and their confidence. During the 21 Days of Y’ello Care, we were proud to provide two institutions – the School for the Deaf Primary and KaLamdladla High School – with digital offline databases to enhance their access to learning tools.
And right now, one of our Peace Corps volunteers is leading a coding project with youth counselors from GLOW so that more girls in rural areas can embrace technology.
This SADC Charter on Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology is a much-needed first step to identify stakeholders and develop a national chapter that aligns with regional and national frameworks. This is the kind of investment that will help ensure that we not only get women into STEM fields, but we keep them there.
This year, we had the opportunity to use a more entertaining tool to underscore the importance of women in STEM. The movie Hidden Figures shared the story of the extraordinary African American women who literally helped put a man into space and returned him safely to earth – with math. They did this while living and working under the limitations and threats inherent in the system of segregation in the early 1960s. If the SDGs had been around in their day, we could have quickly pointed to many goals for which these women had to struggle – quality education; gender equality; decent work and economic growth; reduced inequalities; and peace, justice and strong institutions. Part of the legacy of their work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been progress on these issues. But if you think about the ways in which the space program has given us technological advances, from medical devices to improved baby formula, you can check off nearly all the rest of the boxes in the Sustainable Development Goals – hunger; good health and well-being; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; life on land – they’re all in there. The pioneering work of these women played a part in making possible these tremendous advances. Their story is a tangible example of the benefits for everyone when women are given the opportunity to fully participate in all economic and educational spheres, including STEM.
We took advantage of the release of Hidden Figures to bring together some of the schools we’ve been working with for a private viewing. It was a small event, but it gave these young people the opportunity to see people who had overcome adversity to accomplish great things, and to reflect on how they can push for such accomplishments in their own lives.
It is incredibly important that we all keep highlighting success stories of women in STEM, particularly within the local context. I’m sure you’re familiar with the expression: “Be the change you want to see.” I think it also helps to see the change you want to be. Having role models and mentors is incredibly important to helping the next generation move up to even greater achievements.
I strongly encourage everyone here today to think broadly about ways that you or your organizations can commit to investing in STEM, whether those resources are human, financial, technical, or otherwise. As an Embassy, we did not start with trying to teach coding to every child in Swaziland. Rather, we started with minimal funds and, over the years, we have been able to leverage new partnerships, discover new ways to engage on STEM, and generate new funding streams because we believe in the power of technology to transform and empower societies.
To grow women’s involvement in STEM in the SADC region will take tremendous effort from all sectors, but long-term investments in education and infrastructure now will ensure southern Africa’s rightful place among the global workforce in the future.