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Yershen Pillay | 17 February 2024

Globally, the world observed the International Day of Women and Girls in Science at the weekend.

Amid the lofty promises is the harsh reality that considerably more needs to be done to ensure that women and girls are given the tools to succeed in science and society at large.

The Chemical Industries Training and Education Authority (Chieta) is mandated to facilitate skills development, education, and training in the chemical industry. We are striving to create opportunities for the youth, women, and girls.

We were proud to hear about hard-working matriculant Liyabona Ncanywa being recognised by the Eastern Cape Department of Education as one of the province’s top achievers in the National Senior Certificate Examinations. Chieta assisted her with tuition and school fees through our Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem) fund, which supports 1000 learners throughout the country. Through its various programmes, including the upcoming Discretionary Grant Funding Windows and working with corporations, Chieta provides potential opportunities for 615 internships, 1085 leadership, 1 395 skills programmes, and 1285 TVET students for Work Integrated Learning.

Such investment in skills development is vindicated when learners like Liyabona make us proud. It certainly encourages us to do more to ensure that the goals of the UN become a reality for women and girls worldwide.

In 2016, the UN declared February 11 International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The main reason for this declaration was to encourage more girls and women to take jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (known as Stem subjects).

As an organisation, Chieta takes a broad view of the need to provide skills training for the chemicals industry, which, traditionally, would mean chemical skills, especially for women and girls. As industries like ours and others digitise, we are seeing a demand for what one could call cross-over skills, skills that are as valuable in mining or retail as they are to our industry.

For example, our research shows that data analysis is the number one skill petroleum companies seek.

We are thus duty-bound to do what we can to deepen the pool of data analytics talent for the benefit of our stakeholders, and that means broadening how we interpret our remit. With youth unemployment considerably high, these efforts are critical.

An essential pillar of Chieta’s vision is to overcome the difficulty that many communities in South Africa, predominantly in rural areas, have in accessing digital skills and opportunities. These rural communities often need more basic connectivity, and grinding poverty means that essential equipment like laptops or cellphones are not readily available. Not only does this rob rural youth, especially girls and women, of opportunities, but it also robs the economy of brainpower and motivation. Therefore, bridging the digital divide is crucial if the country is to address the challenges around skills in Stem.

Chieta launched a novel initiative to create nine Smart skills centres, one in each province, to then set up many more once the concept has gained traction. Digital skills are taught to rural learners for them to keep abreast of artificial intelligence developments. The thinking is to provide rural communities, particularly their unemployed young people, with a way to gain vital digital experience and proficiency and use the technology to gain a foothold in the economy by accessing job and partnership opportunities.

Smart skills centres have already been set up in Saldanha Bay, Gqebera and Babanango. The next one to be launched will be in the Highveld Industrial Park in Mpumalanga, on the former Highveld Steel and Vanadium factory site.

Another project that stands out is the AlgoAtWork Robotics Academy in Richards Bay, in which children are taught essential skills for an AI-driven workplace in the future. Numerous bursaries flow into learning support and programmes for retrenched employees, a fundamental way the Chieta supports the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP) – a government initiative that aims to build a new economy.

While the centres come in different sizes depending on the communities they serve, they all feature several pods in which virtual reality and augmented reality technologies can be used, with other pods providing laptops for surfing the internet, doing training or even job interviews.

Connectivity and data are also provided. Getting people, especially women and girls, familiar with and confident in using technology is part of making them work-ready.

Another important part of the smart skills centre offering is a smart boardroom, which SMMEs can book for meetings with potential customers, investors, or any other use.

The smart boardroom concept speaks to Chieta’s understanding that hand in hand with upskilling the youth, jobs are needed, which means a more vibrant SMME sector.

The National Development Plan relies heavily on SMMEs to provide the millions of jobs South Africa needs.

While SMMEs make up some 95% of the companies in the country, most are purely survivalist enterprises that fail often and never get big enough to become providers of sustainable jobs, especially for women and girls.

Secondary Education in Africa: Preparing Youth for the Future of Work – A Gender Brief was a report sponsored by the Mastercard Foundation in 2020 which looked at young people’s preparedness for work, specifically girls and young women, and was aimed at forward-looking solutions that meaningfully contribute to the acceleration of the continent’s economic transformation.

The report focuses on what needs to be done for more African girls and young women to acquire the necessary skills, knowledge, and competencies to be engaged, productive, and employed citizens.

While secondary education is needed to give young women and girls the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in work and entrepreneurship, this cannot be overemphasised. Women make up more than 50% of the continent’s 1.3 billion inhabitants. African women should, therefore, contribute to the global workforce equally.

South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation and the National Research Foundation (NRF) should take a bow for the work done to boost opportunities for women in science.

Against funding cuts, they have valiantly sought to address the gender imperatives through bursaries and fellowships. Most of their recipients are from previously disadvantaged groups – black South Africans, particularly those from low-income households.

About 86% of all postgraduate funding goes to black South Africans, and that is at least 55% for women.

Eventually, these efforts will bear fruit as women and girls are already beginning to lead in the Stem fields.

Future days to observe the International Day of Women and Girls in Science will hopefully celebrate these and other success stories.

‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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