Message from NSTF Executive Director

The ‘other half’s involvement in research and science, engineering and technology (SET) in general

Why does it seem to be a ubiquitous and worldwide challenge to increase the proportion of women researchers and women SET professionals in general? Are women largely ‘invisible’ to society, even in scientific endeavours? What progress is South Africa making in promoting women in science?

Much has been written and debated on this topic. Of course, this editorial cannot do more than reference from a few recent articles and studies. I have selected these according to what I regard as significant findings and arguments. I hope that these will shed some light on the ‘wicked’ puzzles related to women’s participation and achievements.

The NSTF-South32 Awards
First let us look at how women researchers (and women SET professionals, in general) have fared at the South African NSTF Awards over the 19 years since the initiative were founded in 1998. This might provide a useful yardstick for comparison with other statistics.

The NSTF Awards recognises the best of researchers, most of whom are professors at South African universities, or have at least a PhD and a certain number of years of research. Other SET professionals, beyond research, have received a smaller proportion of the awards and the NSTF has decided to include more awards in this category in future. In the meantime, perhaps the past figures can be compared to statistics of top women academics in South Africa and in academies across the world.

The NSTF has made 48 awards to women for outstanding contributions to SET over the 19 years. This is 32% of total awards to individuals. (There are also organisational and team awards). The individual awards to women include 17 (or 35%) black women, 11 (or 23%) of which are African.

The 32% proportion of women among the NSTF Award winners compares well to the figure of 33% women researchers in the European Union. (See UNESCO figures below.) It also compares very favourably with the world average for women members of academies of science, which is 12%, as well as Africa’s 10% average. The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) does very well at 24% women membership. (See ASSAf’s survey figures below.)

Women in SET globally
UNESCO: A Report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) says the following: “Women are actively pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees and even outnumber men at these levels, since they represent 53% of graduates, but their numbers drop off abruptly at PhD level. Suddenly, male graduates (57%) overtake women… The discrepancy widens at the researcher level, with men now representing 72% of the global pool. The high proportion of women in tertiary education is, thus, not necessarily translating into a greater presence in research.”

“Although women account for just 28% of global researchers, according to available data, this figure masks wide variations at both the national and regional levels … Women are highly represented in Southeast Europe (49%), for instance, and in the Caribbean, Central Asia and Latin America (44%). One in three researchers is a woman in the Arab States (37%), the European Union (33%) and the European Free Trade Association (34%), which are closely followed by sub-Saharan Africa (30%).” (My emphasis)

One can conclude from this report that many countries have a challenge that needs to be overcome – how to ensure that more women scientists progress to PhD level, post-doctoral research, and professional researcher levels. If some countries and regions can have a more representative cohort of researchers, why cannot others?

Academies of science: A study by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), published in the South African Journal of Science produced the following findings: The study by ASSAf paints a dire picture of women’s membership of academies across the world. Academies being about recognition of excellent scholarship, not all researchers would be nominated to become members or fellows of academies. Yet it is indicative of women’s involvement in science and the extent to which they are acknowledged.

ASSAf and the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences (IANAS) performed the study as two separate but related online surveys during the period 2014–2015. They collected baseline data on the representation of women scientists in the membership and governance structures of national science academies that are affiliated with the Global Network of Science Academies (IAP). It was found that women academy members remained far below the numbers of men, with women’s membership only averaging about 12% across the science academies that provided data (with a median of 11%).

In the natural sciences and engineering, women’s membership remained well below 10%. On average, the largest share of women members (17%) was associated with academies in Latin America and the Caribbean. The two academies ranked highest were: the Cuban Academy of Sciences (27%) and the Caribbean Academy of Sciences (26%). For 30 of the 63 science academies, the share of women members was 10% or less.

In Africa, women comprise on average 10% of academy members. ASSAf was the only African academy to rank among the top five organisations (24%). The Uganda National Academy of Sciences occupied the second position on the African continent (13%).

Involvement in nine broad disciplines in which the women researchers in academies specialise were also recorded. The proportions range from as high as 22% (biological sciences) to as low as 5% (engineering sciences). The median proportion of women gives a more accurate picture, as it takes into account the skewness of data distributions. There were three broad disciplines for which the median share of women members per science academy was zero: computer sciences/ICT, mathematical sciences, and engineering sciences. It is, therefore, important to focus on promoting these qualifications and careers to girls and women.

It is pointed out in the report what aspects of women’s representation were not explored in the study. These raise issues for further study that might shed light on the reasons behind the figures.

*  The main criteria for academy member selection or election: is it honouring a lifetime body of work, or honouring scientific achievement even if that has been reached at an earlier career stage? It is believed that women follow a different age structure within the scientific community. In some cases, women have gaps in their scientific career as a result of the work–life balance cycle.

*  To what extent are the various fields of study given equal weight or priority when selecting women for academy membership? If there is positive bias towards engineering, computer science or the physical sciences, then fewer women will appear among those nominated. If there is negative bias towards the biological, medical, social and behavioural sciences then women’s higher representation in those fields will not be reflected in the overall academy representation.

*  What cultural aspects affect women’s election into science academies? An argument could be made that the (mostly) male academy members nominate and elect colleagues from their established professional networks that were formed during past decades.

*  To what extent is unconscious bias against women shared by both men and women scientists? Many cultures have male and female work spheres, and confine girls to less valued ‘women’s work’, underestimating women’s intellectual and technological capacities. This bias can be replicated in the processes of nomination, evaluation and selection of women and men, for example, for science grants, fellowships and prizes.

One remark with which the report concludes is that the study reveals “the importance of further qualitative research to engage the unsettling quantitative narrative concluded by the study. This further research should allow for the design and implementation of appropriate policies to bring about needed changes.”

Women in SET in South Africa
Our country has been doing moderately well in the area of increasing women’s participation in higher education, as well as in SET. As mentioned above, South Africa’s academy was found to be the only African academy to rank among the top five, at 24%. This is also double the average of 63 academies across the world, namely 12%.

The proportion of women students enrolling for higher education in South Africa improved dramatically over the first 19 years of democracy: Women students enrolments were at 43% in 1993 and increased to 58% by 2013. (See Dr Saleem Badat’s report for the Development Bank of South Africa where figures from the Council for Higher Education and the Department of Higher Education and Training are cited.)

It is, therefore, particularly disappointing that the representation of female students in enrolment and undergraduate figures do not translate into good representation at post-graduate level and beyond. However, as the UNESCO study shows, this is a typical trend worldwide.

As Dr Beverley Damonse of the National Research Foundation (NRF) told a conference audience of women in 2015: “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% of its potential for innovation.”

Black women in SET in South Africa
Ms Ndoni Mcunu, founder and CEO of Black Women in Science (BWiS) wrote a piece for The Conversation in February 2018: A personal journey sheds light on why there are so few black women in science.

Ms Mcunu is studying for a PhD at Wits University. She says that it is difficult to attract and retain black women in the sciences and refers to the reasons put forward by Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor designate of the University of Cape Town. For example, black women wishing to enter ‘non-traditional’ careers face opposition from the patriarchal cultures in which most of them were raised. Black women lecturers in the sciences also have the lowest representation of all groups. (These links to articles are cited by Mcunu.)

Mcunu says: “Mentors and role models are crucial; so too are opportunities for black women scientists to find and build more collaborative spaces where they can combine their technical training with other skills.”

Transformation of universities is long overdue. The Report of the 2nd National HET Summit in 2015 to which Mchunu refers, includes the following remark: “By foregrounding institutional environments, the Summit is taking note of the fact that the lack of change to institutional culture is thought to be a major barrier to transformation, particularly on formerly white campuses. The commission explored what is meant by institutional culture and the ways in which it constrained or enabled institutions to be responsive to the needs of a democratic South Africa in the 21st century.” This is also the year when the #FeesMustFall campaign was started by students.

Black women students experience isolation and alienation. The adaptation from high school to university is particularly difficult for first year black students – as shown by the dropout rates. Mcunu started Black Women in Science (BWiS) because of her own experiences at school and university. BWiS aims to encourage young black women’s participation in SET “by approaching the career of a scientist in a collaborative manner”.

The visibility of women in SET[1]
Ms Marina Joubert, from CREST (Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology) at Stellenbosch University, recently wrote an article for ‘The Conversation’ entitled: White men’s voices still dominate public science. Here’s how to change this (27 May 2018). She writes: “Scientists can be powerful influencers and role models. So there’s reason for concern when the same names and faces dominate coverage and visibility.”

All over the world, white men (especially senior men) tend to be the most prominent in the public eye. In South Africa, “Although only 8% of South Africans are white, nearly 80% of the country’s visible scientists are white. And 63% of this group of visible scientists are men. Black women made up only 8% of the group. This is according to a 2017 study which I co-authored and which was published in the South African Journal of Science.”

Visibility is important for scientists because it can attract funding, top students, the ability to influence policy, and the number of citations they receive. Thus less visibility for women researchers means that they are disadvantaged in their research efforts, and will probably struggle to make progress as fast as their male counterparts. Joubert did a survey of which scientists were perceived to be most prominent or visible. She found the responses dominated by the names of men.

Her recommendations include: (these are direct quotes)

*  Universities and other research organisations need to equip young, black and female scientists with the skills and confidence to engage with the mass media.

*  Universities can promote women and black scientists to the media by featuring them in press releases and ensuring they appear in online expert lists.

*  Young, black women in science can also gain visibility via popular science events such as Pint of Science and Famelab.

*  It is also up to women scientists to become proactive users of social media. Stellenbosch University botanist [Prof] Nox Makunga, also one of the “visible scientists” in my study, is among those using Twitter to share her research.

Makunga’s assessment is: “Now that we have more black scientists, they must also become more publicly visible. We need to showcase science in communities where people hardly ever see a scientist so that young people can grasp the possibilities of a science career.”

I add here that awards, such as the NSTF-South32 Awards, also have a role to play in increasing visibility of researchers. Seventeen winners are awarded annually. The NSTF has a programme called the Share ‘n Dare, which takes the winners of the Awards all over the country to address and inspire high school learners, first year students, and the public. More than 20 events are facilitated per year. Radio interviews and various forms of publicity are also arranged for them. Taking advantage of such opportunities creates visibility for researchers.

What is a woman-friendly environment for science?
Dr Thandi Mgwebi (then at NRF) said that South Africa needed to consider grants to allow women to re-enter academia after having children, or doctoral or postdoctoral maternity leave.

An article appeared in ‘Nature’ (16 May 2018, authored by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Colette Patt and Mark Richards) called Go beyond bias training. The article says: “…ambiguity serves as fertile ground for the expression of bias”. It recommends that university departments should “adopt transparent policies and expectations for student progress that are communicated clearly to all” and “Professors and mentors should take time to build trust and rapport with students”.

Surveys of science, technology, engineering and medicine departments at the University of California, Berkeley, suggest that the structure of the training programmes themselves and the cultures built around them, are important factors that can lead to inequality.

Where the programme structures are unclear and the path to academic success lacks transparency, it seems that women and black students and researchers can be at a disadvantage. Indications are that, when this is the case, lecturers and assessors can unconsciously resort to biased stereotypes when assessing students. Also, students who anticipate discrimination might more easily perceive that they are discriminated against, even when that is not the case.

The chemistry college at Berkley turned out to be the exception in a study comparing rates of publication between women and men researchers. These figures were more equal than in other colleges/departments. The college had the following characteristics:

*  Advancement processes and procedures are clearly defined and systematically applied.

*  Student progress is overseen by multiple faculty members.

*  There is department-wide agreement about expectations for advancement. (There are written guidelines.)

In another article in ‘Nature’ (12 October 2017, by Jo Marchant), Male scientists share more — but only with other men, it was found that a strong gender difference exists in how scientists responded to a request for help. Men were more likely to share, but only with other men. A male-male request was 15% more likely to be granted than any other gender combination. Women might also tend to be more cautious about cooperating with strangers. “That’s an obstacle to building up the same networks that men have.”

In summary, a women-friendly environment would likely have the following characteristics:

*  Arrangements that accommodate the starting of families, such as maternity leave for post-graduate students and allowing women researchers to return after a period of time without loss of recognition for the actual research.

*  Transparent policies, expectations, procedures, and criteria for advancement, which are clearly communicated.

*  Rapport between supervisors and their students.

*  General awareness about the unconscious and imperceptible factors that have an influence on the sharing of knowledge and research collaboration.

ASSAf’s baseline study gives a strong indication of how dire the situation is, worldwide and in South Africa, in relation to women’s representation in SET research. Collection and analysis of similar data have to continue to monitor the effects of interventions.

South Africa is not unique in its low rates of participation in research endeavours by women – and has done comparatively well. This is borne out by the female participation figures of the NSTF Awards.

Leaders in South Africa have often emphasised the need for involvement by women in all areas and levels of society, including in research and SET professions. We are fortunate as South Africans that our government is sensitive to these issues and the need for gender and racial inclusiveness. The opportunity of such a positive policy environment should be taken advantage of by continuing to strengthen the role of women in SET.

Of particular concern is the participation of black women in SET. Various individuals and organisations promote their participation, and these should be supported. Increasingly it is understood that there is strength in numbers and that social support is critical for the performance of individuals.

Various social dynamics – probably often unintentional – conspire to undermine women’s achievements. This can, for example, render them ‘invisible’ or less significant than equivalent achievements by their male counterparts. The tendency of men’s preference to share their findings with fellow male researchers rather than women, creates another imperceptible hurdle to women’s progress. Furthermore, a lack of clarity in guidelines, processes and criteria for evaluating research tends to facilitate the emergence of bias towards women and black researchers.

It is clear that without institutional transformation and specific interventions, it is a challenge that will not be resolved. Concerted efforts need to be made to create women-friendly environments for researchers and other SET professionals, if we are to make further progress with gender and racial transformation. Because the factors that influence inclusive participation tend to be elusive, it is important to talk about them and address them in a constructive, explicit and intentional way.

Sources, South African Journal of Science, article by Sarah Wilde, reported by EWN

[1] Other organisations working for change in SA to promote gender inclusiveness include:
SA WISE – Women in Science and Engineering. See this article on scholarships for women.
Women in Engineering (WIE) IEEE South Africa Sectionis an affinity group of the IEEE.