Sinking her teeth into a male-dominated career field

Posted October 16, 2013 Avatar Emma DV

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© UNICEF South Africa/2013/van Heerden

© UNICEF South Africa/2013/van Heerden "I did it! I successfully molded my first clay front tooth!" says Nokulunga Dladla with a smile. Nokulanga is a second-year dentistry student and an alumni of the Techno Girl programme supported by UNICEF.

By Emma de Villiers, UNICEF South Africa

International Day of the Girl Child is 11 October 2013. This year’s Day focuses on innovating for girls’ education. Smart and creative use of technology, policies, partnerships and, most of all, the engagement of young people, themselves, are important for overcoming barriers to girls’ learning and achievement.

PRETORIA, South Africa, October 2013 - The young woman’s smile lights up her face as she puts on the white lab coat that she has grown accustomed to wearing every day. As Nokulunga Dladla’s leaves her apartment dressed for class, the nineteen-year-old student knows that every day is bringing her one step closer to fulfilling her dream of becoming a dentist, one step closer to being called Doctor Dladla.

Growing up, Nokulunga never imagined that she would be attending university one day, let alone studying towards a medical degree. Enrolled as a second-year dentistry student at the University of Pretoria, the medical campus is worlds apart from the violent township she grew up in.

Raised to believe that girls had no place in careers dominated by males, she had little aspiration to study beyond secondary school. Her parents separated when she was ten, and her mother had to rely on odd jobs to put food on the table.

“My friends and I only studied to pass our exams – we didn’t care much about the result. But everything changed in Grade 10 when I was enrolled in a mentorship programme called Techno Girl.”

Mentoring girls to reach greater heights

Techno Girl is a career mentorship programme that aims to expose girls to careers in fields such as engineering, science and medicine. The programme is collaboration between the Department for Women, Children and people with Disabilities, the public and private sectors and UNICEF.

For Nokulunga, an internship at an engineering company as part of Techno Girl was a turning point. Before the internship, Maths and Science were merely subjects she had to pass. But with every passing day of the internship, her eyes opened more and more to the possibilities these subjects presented for her future.

“The internship really boosted my confidence,” she says with a big smile. “It showed me that as a girl I can pursue any career that I want – whether in technology or medicine.”

Girls entering male-dominated career fields

But many girls in South Africa are never presented with the privilege of channeling their own career path. Despite the fact that more girls than boys enroll for Mathematics and Physical Science, boys still outperform girls in these fields.*

As a result, many girls leave school without the necessary competencies to pursue careers in Maths, Science and Technology.

The Techno Girl programme, however, is slowly turning the situation around. More than 10 000 girls have been enrolled in mentorship opportunities as part of the programme. Not only does it expose them to real life work experience, it also broadens their outlook on technical subjects outside the classroom.

“Its focus is not only on giving girls access to technology, but to provide exposure to the world of work which in turn grants them the opportunity to engage with technology,” says UNICEF Adolescent and Youth Development Specialist Nokuthula Prusent. “The end result is that girls going through the Techno Girl curriculum feel motivated by what they have seen and experienced, turning that motivation into focus on their schoolwork.”

Alumni sharing their experience with the career women of the future

The programme recently launched the Techno Girl Alumni Association, giving girls who have been through the programme the opportunity to mentor young girls with dreams of becoming doctors, scientists or engineers.

Nokulunga is a proud member of the Alumni Association, and hopes that her story will inspire other girls from underprivileged communities to study medicine.

“Looking at this white coat now, you will only see my initials and surname stitched onto the pocket,” she says. “But I’m counting down the 36 months to the day when it will read Doctor Nonku Dladla. That feeling will make all the hard work and pressure worth it."

* According to the Report on the National Senior Certificate Examinations Results 2010, in Mathematics 52% of boys passed as opposed to 44% of girls. In Physical Science, 50% of boys passed while only 46% of girls were successful.

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