We salute our women scientists

Around the world Women’s Day is celebrated as a reminder of the contribution made by women to society. Women have become a force to be reckoned with even in the former male strongholds.

Traditionally, careers in science and engineering were male territory, but times are changing. Since 1994 gender issues have received more attention than ever before in South Africa. Government, industry and society have come to realise that increasing the participation of women in science and engineering is not optional but essential to the future success of these disciplines in South Africa.

Yet women who succeed in graduating as scientists and engineers are still likely to discover that they not only have to deal with the challenges posed by the career itself, but also have to overcome organisational cultures and practices that have been shaped in ways that favour men.

Despite the constraints, South Africa is producing a steady stream of successful women scientists. This year’s Women in Science Awards again highlight the pioneering research and internationally acknowledged achievements of our women scientists. These dedicated scientists work tirelessly in their respective fields to put technology and knowledge to good use to improve the world we live in.

The Women in Science Awards is a salute to these women, who set the example for future generations through their groundbreaking work.

The question is: Will these pathbreakers smooth the way for other women, in particular those who come after them? The answer is yes, provided the young scientists receive the right mentoring and coaching to assist them in their careers.

Without exception, the winners of this year’s awards have mentioned the role that mentorship, or lack of mentorship, has played in their careers. Dr Nosisa Matsiliza, a finalist in the women scientist fellowship awards in the category Gender Responsive Research, has spent the larger part of her career mentoring young scientists and putting structures in place to assist them.

Female students generally encounter problems when they start establishing themselves in industry or as researchers at academic institutions, says Prof Tebello Nyokong, finalist in the Distinguished Women Scientist category. She recounts the bouts of “academic loneliness” she sometimes experienced early in her career when she had no one to talk to about her research.

Zanele Gasa, finalist in the Women Scientist in Industry award, says that a lack of skills development and mentorship still hampers the fast-tracking of women in the construction industry. She warns that unless this is urgently addressed, the numbers of women will remain low. For this reason she sees mentorship as fulfilling an extremely important role in industry, without which young scientists may not fully evolve.

The contribution of outstanding women in scientific research is frequently not fully recognised. This lack of recognition has resulted in inequity of access by women to the research professions. The department has stepped into this breach by creating special awards to celebrate women in science – a direct response to the vision encapsulated in the national research and development strategy of ultimate improvement in the quality of life of South Africans.

In collaboration with the National Science and Technology Forum, the department is involved in a national youth service programme. Each year 100 unemployed science graduates, many of them women, are selected to take part in this programme aimed at giving them the required skills, including life skills, to find employment.

In addition the department has set aside R195-million for strengthening the scientific capacity of higher education institutions as part of its drive to address the critical shortage of human resources in science, engineering and technology. “The stories of these impressive women scientists give us hope,” says Minister of Science and Technology Mosibudi Mangena. “In many cases they demonstrate triumph of will over adversity.”

Another opportunity lies in the participation of women in the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI). One of the principles of the initiative requires 50% of the locally recruited research chairs to be awarded to women. A second-tier 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.

One of the scoring criteria in the SARChI is that of succession planning by institutions. Succession planning is born of a need to increase the number of young, black, women scientists and researchers.

The issue of gender equity is also rigorously pursued on the succession planning front. As in many of the human capital development initiatives, equity targets have been set for the student training and enrolment component. Enrolments by women under the Research Chairs tutelage and mentorship are being closely monitored in line with the mandate of increasing the participation of women in high-level careers in science, engineering and technology.

These and several other initiatives have been put in place by the DST to address the dire need in our country for women skilled in science and technology. For South Africa to become a leading nation, it is necessary to embrace the full range of potential and existing talent inherent in its people.

Thus it is doubly important that we celebrate our women scientists and showcase their achievements so that the public can understand the importance of science, engineering and technology and inspire future South Africans to take up careers in these fields.

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