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?

WOMANDLA !!

Having grown up in a Christian family I read the bible a lot. It followed naturally that I would believe in the supernatural power of God. This blog, however, is not about what I do or do not ascribe power to in my personal space but I mention this part of my upbringing to make reference to a story in the bible I once read that got me thinking about how courageous women are. 

It takes courage to pursue one’s dreams

The story was about the twelve spies from Israel that were sent to “examine” the land of Canaan that the Lord was going to give to their possession as a people. Ten of the twelve spies came back reporting that it would be impossible to take over that land because the people were too powerful, the city is very large and greatly fortified.  They could not even imagine fighting the people of that land. However two out of the twelve spies had a different attitude, they reported that yes the people are big and the walls are huge but conquering them can be done, it is not impossible.

I liken women who pursue their careers in whatever field be it sports, law,  social and business entrepreneurship, academics and in many other fields, to the two spies who came back from exploring Canaan with a different attitude from the rest. The world of “work” was without a doubt created for men but the women who have over the years dared to initiate working environments that are suitable for women to work in. Women advancing in any field of work has never been an easy task due to a number of stumbling blocks that they come across based solely on the fact that they are women. One such subtle but lethal stumbling block is the social pressure of “being found suitable for marriage”.

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The pressure and expectations are real

Women especially young women are expected to “behave” a certain way, not be too successful more than their male counterparts or they will definitely end up alone. They can achieve but not too much, they can make money but not too much money and they better make sure they remain “humble” in their achievements if they do not want to end up alone.  I was once asked by a dear family member (whose relation to me I will not mention) “who will marry you when you have a PhD?” dumbfounded by this question and not really sure how to answer I was rescued by my sister “other men with PhD’s as well” she said jokingly. That was the first time I was subjected to this kind of pressure and I remember walking away from that conversation counting the number of “men with PhD’s and who are perusing PhD’s who could be potential husbands” … sad right? I think my experience was a tip of the iceberg compared to the stories millions of women can relay with regards to this type of social pressure all because they are bold and courageous enough to pursue their dreams. I respect women folk because despite what society has said and done over the years women have not been the kind to sit back, fold their arms and say oh well this is our fate.

Resilience is key

To me, they resemble those two spies who came back with the same report but had a different attitude, an attitude that said: “it may be difficult but it is not impossible”. One such woman who comes to mind is Caster Semenya.  That girl has been handling her case with such grace and dignity. I draw a lot of strength just by observing her hold her head up and fighting to stay in the game despite the IAAF’s determination to get rid of her. I can only imagine the self-strengthening conversations she must have with herself to keep herself going. Often times when I get discouraged in my academic journey I read about her and her strength always comes through for me. Caster is a true embodiment of WOMANDLA!!!

I imagine that those two spies had their nation, they were more concerned about the future of the people who they had left behind and not so much their own lives. Women like Mamokgeti Phakeng who are willing to forsake their comfort (salaries to pay for student fees), fear, personal time to serve their nations defiantly inspire and build courage in other women to be bold in chasing their dreams and serving the people of their nation and the world.

We women in our respective fields work hard to contribute to overcoming the numerous challenges in our various disciplines, environments and social spaces. We do not offer ourselves in service to other people by applying ourselves to our work because it is easy to do but because it must be done. If not for us then for generations to come. As Beyoncé said it our “persuasion as women can build nations” in this academic space we woman are working to build an informed nation.