TechnoGirl: Educating girls, creating opportunity

TechnoGirl, which is aimed at encouraging more girls to study Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), has steadily increased the numbers of young South African women entering the science, technology and engineering sectors.

TechnoGirls Londiwe Dladla, Busisiwe Biyela and Londiwe Mkhize at Transnet Engineering workshop. (Image: Transnet)

Sulaiman Philip

A worldwide UN Children’s Fund programme set up in 2007, Unicef brought TechnoGirl to South Africa in 2009, where it took on its first group of girls, from grades 9 to 12, in 2010. In 2012, the TechnoGirl Trust was set up, taking over the running of the programme from Unicef. It gives young girls from underprivileged schools the opportunity to job shadow at companies in the IT, science and engineering sectors, as well as funds studies.

At present, the TechnoGirl Trust funds 20 young women working towards engineering degrees across the country. Among them is Zama Ntozakhe, an engineering student at the University of the Witwatersrand. “The trust has allowed me to pursue my dream of becoming a civil engineer,” she says.

Says TechnoGirl Trust manager Mahlatse Sithole: “It gives young girls who wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity, experience of the world of work. They are also exposed to Stem-related careers they can opt for when leaving school for university.”

Beginning with pupils in Grade 9, the trust mentors girls who are encouraged to choose a Stem subject course load. To date, more than 9,000 girls have benefitted from the programme. Of those, 2,000 have gone on to university or technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges. “And 90% of them are studying towards Stem careers,” Sithole says proudly.

Reckitt Benckiser, the consumer goods company, has committed to a bursary fund of R1.2-million a year for three years for girls in the programme. Budding engineer Ntozakhe is one of the students who have benefitted.

That funding stems from a business breakfast the trust hosted in 2016 to introduce the programme to businesses. “The head of human resources at Reckitt Benckiser attended and was very interested in the programme. Unfortunately, they couldn’t have schoolchildren on their production floor so they offered bursaries for second year students,” Sithole explains.

The programme

Minister in the Presidency Responsible for Women Susan Shabangu hosted bursary recipients at a Women’s Month event at the end of July.

Techno Girl Alumni celebrating 60th anniversary of 1956 women’s march, at the Union Buildings Pretoria. (Image: TechnoGirls ZA)

South African women and young girls enjoyed equal protection under the country’s Constitution. They had the right to equal access to educational opportunities, employment, equal pay and the prospect of promotion based on ability, she reminded guests, who included five TechnoGirls beneficiaries who are studying engineering degrees.

She applauded their perseverance. “You dealt with the myths and stereotypes that women cannot venture into certain careers. Do not forget where you come from; when you succeed in life you inspire many and shape lives in your communities.”

She told the young women it was now their responsibility to mentor the girls who came after them. The trust’s Sithole explained that many of the women who had gone through the programme returned to their own schools to talk to and mentor others.

“We assist our young women with networking to find jobs and help to make them comfortable in the work environment. We do encourage them to become mentors themselves once they are employed.”

In 2011, then 18-year-old Khanyisile Mokele – one of the first beneficiaries of the Unicef programme –was a TechnoGirl with a dream. “I want to design my own bridge. Bridges bring the world closer.” She says the biggest benefit of her time in the job shadowing programme was her growing confidence in her ability to become an engineer.

Sithole recognises that effect and sees it in all the girls in the programme. “Once you have someone who believes in you, you change. Suddenly anything becomes possible.”

The TechnoGirl Trust exists to deal with South Africa’s skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by encouraging girls to choose Stem subjects in high school. Girls from Grade 9 onwards from disadvantaged communities are placed in corporate mentorship and job shadowing programmes.

TechnoGirls job shadowing at Daspoort Water Works. (Image: Water Research Council)

Begun by Unicef, the aim is to encourage girls to become scientists and engineers to build brighter futures for themselves and their families. In 2010, Unicef surveyed girls who had gone through the programme and found that 94% had a better understanding of the working world and the skills requirements of the various careers to which they were exposed.

This success prompted the government to scale up the programme. Today, the trust works with the Department of Basic Education and the Ministry in the Presidency Responsible for Women. The focus for the government has been on schools in disadvantaged areas, especially rural schools.

This does create logistical problems, however, for girls who spend a week during the holidays working at companies that may be a long distance from home. “Companies pay an R800 stipend to cover travel expenses and a meal for the girls.”

Sithole is also gratified by an unintended benefit for the girls: “Companies invest time and money in the girls. Now, after noticing that some were finding school work challenging, they offer the girls assistance to ensure they pass. This extends even to computer training.”

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