How I found my sisters in Science.

Growing up in a family with three older brothers, a whole bunch of male cousins and no sisters; I have always had problems with communicating with females. It came as no shock to me when I found myself in a male-dominated field such as Physics. Over the years I have accumulated close female friends that can only be counted with one hand. This blog post is not about all my failed friendships with females but rather about my experience with a special group of ladies I survived a year with (which is a big deal for me).

In April I came across a link on Twitter of an article titled “Want black women students to stay in STEM? Help them find role models who look like them” published in Science Daily. This article made me reflect on all my attempts to always find a group of people I can relate to. I mean I get along very well with males but at the end of the day, I would always question why I am never part of that group of girls having fun at the library lawns or at the club wearing matching outfits. The few female friends I have are all not part of the STEM field and while they are there for me during my ups and downs in this postgraduate journey, I feel like something is still missing. We have very few women in Physics in South Africa, let alone the world so trying to find a role model who looks like me is a big reach. So the next best thing is to find other postgraduate students who are in the STEM field like me.

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Long story short, last year in February I came across a Twitter post from Black Women in Science (BWIS) appealing to black females in the STEM field to apply to become members. Like all other things in my life, I took the chance and applied to be a member. To my surprise, I got accepted as one of the few Johannesburg fellows that were accepted to be part of the programme. So let me tell you about who and what BWIS is, well BWIS is a registered NPC which aims to deliver capacity development interventions that target young black women scientists and researchers. The purpose of BWIS is to develop professional research and science conduct, leadership and mentorship skills for women within all scientific disciplines, in tertiary intuitions and professional environments nationally and internationally. They promote a postgraduate culture amongst African students and improve their academic experience by providing support, training, a professional network and exposure to opportunities.

As mentioned above, they focus on all scientific disciplines and the first time I finally got to meet all the other BWIS fellows, I wondered to myself how many of them could possibly help me if I am the only person doing Physics. Little did I know what an amazing experience this would turn in to. The programme consisted of three workshops that focused on Scientific Writing Skills, Business Skills and Development and the third workshop gave us time to work and present our Sustainability Projects where we could either work in groups on individuals. I was fortunate enough to find myself in a group with seven incredible ladies where we worked on a project focusing on recycling.

The cherry on top of this whole experience would have to be the Gala dinner we had in April this year. All the ladies got to dress up and everyone look absolutely stunning. I had never been in a room full of beautiful ladies in my entire life. Prizes were given, food was eaten and conversations were shared. Our group even won the “Best Pitch Award”, which was completely unexpected if you ask me. The year I spent as part of the BWIS fellow has been insightful and memorable. I got the opportunity to meet amazing people in STEM and we have all gotten to share our journeys as postgraduates and working professionals.  I am now a BWIS alumnus and part of their mentorship programme. I am very grateful to the BWIS team for taking the risk and choosing me to be one of their fellows because I have found my sisters in science.

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The purpose of this post was to basically share the importance of finding people who you can relate with. Not necessarily on a social platform but on a more “professional” platform. Whether it be “Women in Science”, “Women in Engineering” or even organizations/forums that are within your field. As long as you find a place where you belong and can be uplifted in your career. I read somewhere about the “Power of the Pack: Women who support women are more successful.” After you have found your happy place, go out there and be someone else’s happy place by mentoring our young girls to join the STEM field because everyone keeps asking: Why aren’t there more women in science?

But still, (together) we rise

 

“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”- Maya Angelou

When my editor approached us about writing a post for Women’s month, I was caught off guard surprisingly. What would I speak about? It is difficult to write about topics that are close to your heart, sometimes they are triggers, sometimes they get you fired up, sometimes they make you cynical about the world. That was the dilemma I found myself in, there is so much to discuss being a woman, not just in STEM but generally in life, there are so many challenges but at the same time there are so many successes, so much inspiration and ultimately so much resilience.

In a world that is truly designed for men (I mean that in the most literal sense, check out this article by the BBC and this article in The Guardian and prepare to be SHOOK!) it may seem like a constant uphill to carve a space for women. One thing that has helped us, though is our ability to come together and to build communities and support systems. The strength that comes from women uniting for a common cause is something that is truly awe-inspiring, it reminds me of a video I once watched of Army Ants who had held onto each other tightly to form a raft to survive a flood in the Amazon jungle. I use this analogy for a number of reasons, 1) people often think ants are small and insignificant however they are pretty incredible, 2) people underestimate how smart they are and 3) they are strong in numbers, just like the women in science that I know. The world has tried to crush them, but they have prevailed, the system has tried to force them out but they have stood strong.

They continue to rise, like dust

Fire ant raft
Fine ant raft

So, the purpose of my women’s month post is to highlight my own support structure and some of the incredible global initiatives that have provided a space for women to talk, connect, vent, draw strength and reflect on the past, present and future. These organizations are doing the important work of uniting women from all walks of life and providing them with a shared safe space in order to foster much-needed conversations but make no mistake, they are not all talk!

South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS)

Although SAYAS is a platform for PhD candidates (not only women) this year was a special one because the entire team of bloggers and our editor all happen to be women! I have learnt so much from Joyful, Sesetu, Munira and Roula and I am grateful for our meme sharing, motivation and support of each other. Ladies, we have had a beautiful year together and I cannot wait to watch you all dominate your respective fields, it has been a complete privilege to share a platform with you. I look forward to hearing the future voices on here talking about the groundwork we once laid!

Black Women in Science South Africa (BWIS)

2019 has clearly been a fantastic year for me! I am also very honoured and privileged to have been selected as a 2019 BWIS Fellow. Black Women In Science (BWIS) is a registered NPC which aims to deliver capacity development interventions that target young black women scientists and researchers. Black Women In Science develops professional research and science conduct, leadership and mentorship skills for women within all scientific disciplines, in tertiary intuitions and professional environments nationally and internationally. The organisation was founded in 2015 by Ndoni Mcunu (CEO), google her, she is so incredible and there are far too many accomplishments to list!

Women in STEMI

This organization serves as a platform for telling the stories of emerging women in science. The forward was written by one of my icons in science, Prof Himla Soodyall and if this quote doesn’t make your arm hairs stand on edge then I do not know! “As I read through this collection of young women’s stories, marvelling at how their journeys through life have brought them to their current destinations, I am struck by a common theme that emerges through them. It’s a theme linked with sacrifice and passion to overcome challenges and a compelling drive to achieve one’s best, but at the same time to give back to society.” – Prof Himla Soodyall

Umsuka team Lindsay Hunter
Umsuka team – Lindsay Hunter

Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering

The Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering (SA WISE) is a dynamic association for all those who support the idea of strengthening the role of women in science and engineering in South Africa. The website contains profiles, information about funding and links to other important resources. One to keep tabs on.

Inspiring Fifty

InspiringFifty is a non-profit that aims to increase diversity in tech by making female role models in tech more visible. The organization releases an annual call for nominations of inspirational women so keep an eye on their webpage and make sure to nominate the women in your life!

One Million Women in STEM

1MWIS (1 million women in STEM) is a campaign seeking to profile a million women working in STEM disciplines to provide visible role models for the next generation of girls. There is now a significant amount of research showing that visible female role models serve to increase the number of girls pursuing STEM subjects in higher education and of those role models, real women (over celebrities, historical figures etc.) have the most influence.  To date, they have highlighted the work of over 300 women from different fields who are challenging the status quo and driving change. You can follow them on Twitter at @MillionStem

Women in Bioanthro workshop 2018
Women in Bioanthro workshop 2018

500 Women Scientists

500 Women Scientists is a grassroots organization started in America but now has a global network of local ‘pods’ to build communities and foster real change that comes. Local pods allow for a personal experience where members can meet often and in-person in order to exchange ideas. The pods focus on issues that resonate in their local communities but rooted in the larger 500 Women Scientists mission and values.

Quote this Woman+

In South Africa, less than 20% of sources quoted in the news are women and this online database of professionals seeks to change this by providing a resource for local and international journalists who are looking for comments! You can add your name to the database as an expert in your respective field.

In 2018 I was fortunate enough to publish an article through The Female Scientist (I am sure you know about this platform by now because I mention it all the time in my posts) on my experiences as a woman of colour in academia (I cannot speak to everyone’s experience- only my own) titled ‘Ebony in an Ivory Tower’ and my view on the position of women in STEM then was quite bleak. Today,  although the challenges I mention in the article are still ever-present, I am more optimistic because I have met with women, spoken to women and been comforted by women who have fought alongside me, for me at my weakest and against me at my most cynical. That is the beauty of the life raft we have created together, it keeps us afloat, but it helps us to realise that it is always darkest before the dawn.

The article I had written ended like this: “We need our voices to bellow through the ivory tower, until the vibrations of our collective pain, anguish, and ultimately hope, rattle the foundations and bring it to the ground. Because we love a science field that never loved us and instead of hiding in the shadows of this unhealthy power dynamic, we stand in the sun and demand a day when science acknowledges who we are.”

Ladies, thank you for standing in the sun with me.