African women in science

The crème de la crème of Africa women scientists met Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor to share their ground-breaking research on the continent

The crème de la crème of Africa women scientists met Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor to share their ground-breaking research on the continent

Have you ever seen those motor vehicle adverts on television demonstrating the safety of the vehicle? Have noticed that in 100% of those adverts, the crash test dummies are modelled on male bodies?

It is thus no surprise when research shows that women tend to sustain more serious injuries than their male counterparts. Researchers believe this is the case because seatbelts are designed by men and their safety is tested on dummies modelled upon male bodies. The status quo is starting to change, but is still not common practice across the automobile industry.

Power tools are another innovation that is gender insensitive, and companies do not consider women when designing these tools; they are targeted at men only. The tools are generally too heavy, with the handles too large to be operated safely by women.

Professor Sonya Smith of Howard University raised this matter during the Science Forum South African session titled Gender Sensitive Research: A Global Imperative.

This session heard that there is a growing interest in the intersection of gender and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in many parts of the world. This is a result of the realisation that there is gender bias that not only results in inequality between the genders but also affects knowledge production, which differentially benefits males and females.

By not having equality in the appointment of both males and females, the research conducted tends to also be less sensitive to gender bias. This raises the question of should the production of scientific knowledge and developing innovative solutions be gender sensitive in order to benefit all?

Scientists all over the world have a shared responsibility to promote gender-sensitive science, research, and innovation that improves the quality of people’s lives regardless of their gender status.

Speaking to the media at SFSA 2017, Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor echoed this sentiment — innovations simply do not cater for the needs and interests of women.

“If we’re doing a clinical trial and all the drugs being produced are tested on men, by male scientists, the effect on us as women is unknown,” Pandor said. “So we need to have women in science to bring a gender-edge to science and development.” And research shows this to be true.

According to an article published in early 2016 by Dr Katherine Liu and Dr Natalie Dipietro Mager, there are numerous diseases that affect women differently from men. These include lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases and sexually transmitted diseases. The researchers say that there is general consensus in the pharmaceutical industry that clinical trials have not always adequately enrolled women or analysed sex-specific differences in the data. This means that the treatment developed for these diseases may affect women differently.

Minister Pandor believes that these dangers can be prevented if we have more women in research and development. According to Statistics South Africa’s mid-year population estimates for 2017, approximately 51% of South Africa’s population is female, while 49% is male. However, the research and development landscape does not reflect this, Pandor noticed two years ago.

“I discovered that this instrument we have called South African Research Chairs was being granted to male professors and women were not getting the chairs, which are excellently funded research chairs for senior researchers.” Pandor made some enquiries and was told by her staff members that there were no female researchers at that level, but she refused to believe this was true.

“So, I told them that in 2016 we’re going to issue a new call and all those chairs will be available only to women researchers. We advertised 42 research chairs and we got 61 competent applicants.”

One of these research chairs is the chair for historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University, held by Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. She is at the forefront of contemporary debate about historical trauma, its expression in memory and its repercussions across generations.

At the University of Cape Town, the research chair for molecular plant physiology of desiccation tolerance is held by Professor Jill Farrant. She is working on the production of a drought-tolerant cereal, which can be used as fodder for animal husbandry or for the manufacture of bioethanol.

The chairs are spread across the country and disciplines, with 16 coming from the humanities and social sciences, closely followed by life sciences with 14. The remaining 12 come from the medical and health sciences and physical sciences.

These 42 research chairs are an immense, transformative change as their appointment creates a more representative state in research: now, nearly half of the National Research Foundation’s research professors are women.

Dozens of women scientists and researchers raised issues faced by women on the continent regarding pursuing post-grad studies

There are many women researchers across the continent who are leaders in their respective fields. Among them is Professor Isabella Quakyi from the University of Ghana, who participated in a panel discussion titled The Contribution of African Women Scientists to Innovation for Development. Quakyi has made contributions to the study of the complex life cycle of the malaria parasite, which is critical for the development of a malaria vaccine. She is passionate about capacity building and was integral in securing funding for the building of the School of Public Health at the University of Ghana.

Quakyi’s journey has not been without challenges and she has confronted gender bias from many sectors of society. She believes that to get more women into science research on the African continent, we need as many mentors as possible mentoring young women. “My dream is to get as many young women as possible into the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences,” Quakyi said.

Black Women in Science (Bwis) is a South African organisation started in 2015 by Mantombi Ngoloyi (27) and Ndoni Mcunu (28) when they were still master’s students. Ngoloyi is completing her PhD focussed on 3D reconstructions of the fossil site and understanding the taphonomy (the branch of palaeontology that deals with the processes of fossilisation) of the fossils at the Cradle of Humankind. Mcunu is doing her PhD in landscape ecology and how it can ensure that farmers have sustainable food production for food security.

“Many times, I’ll go to a conference and there are two of us [black women] or it’s just me,” Ngoloyi said. “And looking at the demographics of South Africa, it just never made sense to me.” Stats South Africa’s mid-year population estimates for 2017 indicate that 41% of the population is black females, while 4% is white males, but white men dominate science research in South Africa.

“There is a gap in support for black women in postgraduate studies,” Mcunu said.

“So we thought that we would try and fill that gap. We have a three-pronged approach: providing mentoring and support for black women to complete their postgraduate studies; helping these black women use their studies to create businesses; and having them see themselves beyond their research.”

Bwis has received a support and funding from the department of science and technology. It recently started an international wing with the help of an initiative, A European and South African Partnership on Heritage and Past.