Exciting times ahead

In a special address delivered at the Women in Science 2007 Awards, Minister of Science and Technology Mosibudi Mangena paid tribute to the role played by women in science through the ages.

Since the beginning of time, he said, women and men, together and independently, have researched and unravelled our greatest contemporary scientific discoveries. In so doing they have contributed jointly to the wellbeing of humanity.

These women left a remarkable legacy. They were as resourceful and passionate about their work as any scientist today—and certainly as creative. Their life stories are a source of inspiration for the women of the future.

The Women in Science Awards is one of several initiatives of the science and technology department to recognise women in science and their role in improving the economic status and quality of life of South Africans.

The awards symbolise the department’s commitment to achieving parity in the participation of women in science, engineering and technology. They highlight the capabilities and contributions by our exceptional women scientists and are meant to put these women in the public domain to be role models to young women.

Breaking with unfair practices of the past

Since 1994 gender issues have received more attention than ever in South Africa. Gender equality has been entrenched in South Africa’s Bill of Rights.

Government, industry and society realise now that increasing participation of women in science and engineering is not optional, but essential to the future success of these disciplines in South Africa.

Mangena said science and technology had been considered a male domain for too long and that the contribution of South African women to scientific research has not been recognised fully. This lack of recognition resulted in inequity of access by women to the research professions, while the lack of prominent women scientists as role models “has hampered not only the public understanding of science, engineering and technology, but also the participation of women at all levels of science”.

Every effort is being made to increase the participation of women in science and technology. These include two government policy documents that draw attention to the under-representation of women and identify mechanisms intended to bring about greater gender equality—the National Plan for Higher Education and the National Research and Development Strategy.

Unlocking the potential of South African women

The South African Reference Group on Women in Science and Technology, a subcommittee of the National Advisory Council on Innovation, was established specifically to monitor and advise the department on ways to promote women in science and technology.

A survey commissioned by the group shows that more women are entering and graduating from higher education institutions. In less than 10 years South Africa has achieved a gender profile in higher education at a level that many other countries took decades to achieve.

Several strategies aimed at addressing the shortage of women in science, engineering and technology have been implemented. These range from programmes aimed at equipping girl learners from disadvantaged schools around the country with maths, science and technology skills to the Thuthuka programme of the National Research Foundation (NRF), which offers preferential funding opportunities for women researchers and an opportunity to acquire higher-level degrees.

Another opportunity for women was created through the department’s South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI). The initiative requires 50% of locally recruited research chairs to be awarded to women. A second tier of research chairs was established to give recognition and opportunity to young, emerging women and black researchers, whose academic outputs are on an upward-growth trajectory.

Cabinet recently approved the introduction of legislation towards the establishment of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) by the science and technology department. The TIA will operate as a steering and funding institution for innovation to enable the development, transfer and commercialisation of local technology.

The TIA will provide a further institutional and policy support mechanism to augment existing initiatives, such as the Technology for Women in Business Initiative and the South African Women Entrepreneurs Network, to enable more women scientists and entrepreneurs to develop and commercialise their ever-increasing knowledge base.

To address the formal and informal barriers that exclude women from meaningful participation in science, engineering and technology, the department will embark on a course of action to create a framework that will support the needs of women as consumers and producers of science and technology. This will be achieved through interventions in areas such as funding, education and change management (to change attitudes).

“These initiatives are not only of scientific significance, but of economic significance as well. Embracing the full range of potential within our population augurs well for job creation and for increasing the research, development and innovation output of our country,” Mangena said.

To find out more about these initiatives, visit www.dst.gov.za

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