Gender barriers limiting innovation in science & technology fields

Black women represent 18 percent of the research and institutional workforce in SA, according to research.

FILE: In South Africa, where women represent about 52% of the population, the percentage of women in research positions is about 42 percent. Picture: Chanel September/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - Black women represented 18 percent of the research and institutional workforce, even though they are the largest demographic group in South Africa, Beverley Damonse, acting CEO of the National Research Foundation (NRF), told the Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) conference on Tuesday.

The three-day conference, attended predominately by black women researchers, is a collaboration between South African institutions and Howard University in the United States, and aims to raise awareness around gender inequality in STEM fields.

In South Africa, where women represent about 52 percent of the population, the percentage of women in research positions is about 42 percent, she said.

"To exclude women from science and technology or to limit their research development in any number of ways, [whether consciously or unconsciously] is to deprive our country of 52 percent of its potential for innovation," Damonse said.

However, this is not a uniquely South African problem.

Christopher Rowan, consul-general of the US embassy in Johannesburg, said: "It's very important that every individual in society, regardless of gender or ethnicity, should have an equal opportunity to contribute…. It is the key to our success, whether we're talking about the US or South Africa or anywhere else.

"We can't change that [gender] gap with immediate effect, but we must change the trajectory."

But gains have been made.

"In the last five years, the number of NRF-rated researchers has increased 52 percent," Damonse said.

"The percentage of female postgraduate students supported by the NRF [which is the main research funding body in South Africa] stands at 53 percent…. Since 2002, more than 18,000 women have obtained their postgraduate qualifications through the support of [Department of Science and Technology] and NRF funding."

The NRF, through a R851 million grant from the Department of Science and Technology, funded postgraduate bursaries and researchers around the country.

Dr Phetiwe Matutu, the Science and Technology Department's chief director for human capital and science promotion, noted that "women's enrolment in higher education increased from 48 percent in 1996 to 58 percent in 2013".

However, she emphasised that there is more work to be done, given the under-representivity of black women in the academy and in academic leadership positions.

Speaking to the barriers that women experience in academia, The NRF's Dr Thandi Mgwebi said: "Women understand less about the promotion criteria process and criteria than men, feel invisible to senior managers, have less external visibility than men, feel less supported than men in continuing their careers … [and] male academics still predominate in positions of power and influence."

The process of supporting and encouraging female academics needed to begin at an undergraduate level, Mgwebi said. She added that South Africa needed to consider grants to allow women to re-enter academia after having children, or doctoral or postdoctoral maternity leave.

In her Parliamentary budget speech last year, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor specifically highlighted the inequality in postgraduate number.

She said that the ratio of black and female postgraduate students funded by government needed to be significantly increased.

Of the students funded in 2016-2017, 71 percent would be black and 55 percent female, she said.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande, in response to parliamentary questions earlier this year, said that his department was spearheading a programme to create 150 new positions for young academics at country's universities, through the Staffing South Africa's Universities Development Programme. About 80 percent of these positions had to be reserved for black women, he said.