Inclusivity and diversity initiatives by the Wits University faculty of science are slowly bearing fruit and transforming the face of physics. 

The Wits department of physics had a majority of women led scientific demonstrations at their two-day orientation on May 26 and 27, 2022.

The event was one of the physics department’s efforts to mark Wits University’s centenary celebrations. Students got to see a gyroscope bicycle wheel and light bulb experiment and attend seminars by prominent figures in the field.  

Associate Professor, Philippe Ferrer spoke enthusiastically about the demonstrations that were dominantly led by female students, saying that it is “showing [that] the face of physics has changed.”  

According to statistics made available to Wits Vuvuzela by the Wits Academic Information and Systems Unit, there has been an 11% increase of female students who were registered at the school of physics between 2017 and 2021. Now one third of all enrolled students and women.  

According to Ferrer, the sharp incline is a result of the department’s efforts to eradicate the existing ideology that science is solely a European, male-dominated discipline. Ferrer says these efforts have been bolstered by bursaries and job opportunities which give preference “to traditionally disadvantaged population groups” to address inequalities.  

The physics department has also introduced mentorship programs through the support of the South African Institute of Physics, said Professor Iyabo Usman of the Wits physics department. 

Usman says that the demographics of students based on the admission criteria are measured with a 60% female consideration every year in their selection process. 

Namhla Hermans (21), currently studying towards her BSc honours in physics at Wits, said, “the face of science is changing”. Hermans further highlights that over the past 20 years, more women in science like Andrea Ghez and Donna Strickland are being recognised by the industry and awarded prestigious awards namely the Nobel Prize. 

The department and executive member Onesimo Mtinsilana of Women in Physics says that the existing disparity is due to the lack of representation of science to children. 

Mstinsilana a PhD student in high energy physics agreed, “It starts at the foundation, in primary school. Universities should engage more with primary school children.”  

To resolve this worldwide phenomena  Mstinsilana encourages tertiary institutions to “tap into forgotten spaces” and host physics orientation at schools in townships to grow the interest in science amongst all students, especially young girls.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Students of the physic department explaining one of the demonstrations to a curious Witsie. Photo: Malaika Ditabo