Despite the fact that groundbreaking scientific research focuses on vital matters — from saving and improving lives to creating alternative energy — it’s a subject many consider rather dead and pallid. White men in white coats in white labs is the stereotypical image conjured in the typical South African mind when the word “scientist” enters it by eye or ear. Historically, science and engineering have been perceived as left-brained sports dominated by the members of a male-only club in which women are not invited to play. But science and technology are fields with enormous depth for creativity and equally sizeable scope to make a difference; a desire many women share. Whether or not it stems from the equally stereotypical notion of women as natural-born caregivers with an innate need to nurture, women make excellent scientists.
Requiring as much of the right brain as the left, science is not all about maths and formulas, just as engineering doesn’t equal hard hats plus overalls. Chemical engineering, for example, is essentially about changing the very nature of things. It focuses on using fuels and chemicals — even garbage — to create different kinds of chemicals and fuels: kinds that, gentler on the planet and less reliant on fossil fuels, we desperately need. If done badly, chemical engineering can cause even more harm to the environment. But if done well, it can make a colossal difference to people’s lives and to the planet, and can change the way people live and work around the world.
In developing countries like South Africa, we need to ask ourselves how we can use science and technology to improve the lives of ordinary citizens
At the warm heart of science, technology and engineering is the premise of improving quality of life. This is something that needs to be done with sensitivity and with care. It requires one to learn fast, act quickly and, most importantly, to fully understand the real needs of the people whose lives we’re striving to improve. In this instance, communication and interaction are as important as innovation and implementation. Naturally wired to think differently, with emotional intelligence and an ability to be creative and communicate (which includes listening), women add a different, important dimension to the industry — one that can only help to advance it and society itself.
In developing countries like South Africa, we need to ask ourselves how we can use science and technology to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. Everyone needs access to electricity, decent roads, health care, a better life. As most scientific research is based on developed countries, it is not always applicable or appropriate to the situations and challenges we face in our local context — and therefore we need to create our own solutions. The question we are forced to ask is: “How can we do it differently?”
For example, in a country reliant on fossil fuels to produce electricity, high-tech turbines from Europe brought in to gain a small percentage of efficiency but sent overseas when they need to be fixed is not a solution. A gas engine that can be maintained by a local diesel mechanic is. In coming up with appropriate solutions to improve lives, create jobs, save water and protect the environment, creativity and interaction are essential; qualities many women possess in abundance.
Facing the challenge of being a female minority in a male-dominated industry, there are times when you feel you need to prove yourself more than ever. But once you’ve proven your worth, the pressure of being a “non-member” of the club disappears. You get on with doing the best you can do, believing in yourself, in your work and, small step by small step, making a difference. After all, it doesn’t matter who discovers how to create more energy while reducing carbon emissions. The only vital matter is that it’s done.
— Diane Hildebrandt