We will spare no effort to ensure women participation in science

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) is developing a new White Paper intended to set the long-term policy direction for the South African government to ensure a growing role for science, technology and innovation (STI) in a more prosperous and inclusive society. The White Paper will also pay a particular attention to the increase of the representation of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Among other objectives, the White Paper, which will be completed in this financial year and released for engagement with the sector will lay the basis for the:

  • increase of funding for STI research in general and more particularly for women;
  • evolution of funding models and research facilities that are supportive of women mothers who are researchers;
  • allocation of research chairs with a bias towards women researchers, and;
  • promotion of greater women participation in centres of excellence.

For these measures to be successful, our primary and secondary education system will have to absorb greater numbers of girls into STEM subjects. This will require a collaborative effort between the departments of Basic Education, Higher Education and Social Development, DST, the private sector and civil society to ensure that early childhood development and a special STEM focus for girls becomes a national priority.

This is because STEM skills are critical for the achievement of the objectives of the National Development Plan which seeks to stimulate and register higher rates of inclusive economic growth which is the guarantor of stability.

The poor development of mathematics and science skills by girls in the primary and secondary education levels continues to make its negative imprint at a postgraduate research level.

Whereas recent reviews have shown that the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) institutional landscape has been expanded to include women and black people, the participation of women is still far below desirable levels.

Significant inequality persists, especially at the higher levels. Black women and men form less than 5 and 20 percent of the full professoriate, respectively. This represents a significant challenge for making the research system more inclusive, diverse and resilient.

It is worth a reminder that Goal Five of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals enjoins UN member states to “Provid[e] women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes which will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large”.

But time is running out!

As the fourth industrial revolution gains momentum and fundamentally alters the socio-economic structure at a national and global setting underpinned by massive gender and other forms of inequality, the imperative to address gender inequality in the fields of STEM cannot be over-emphasised. The fourth industrial revolution is like a double-edged sword – it can lead to the further marginalisation of vulnerable sections of society such as women and the disabled or it can potentially lift millions of people out of poverty.

A World Economic Forum (WEF) report entitled: “Future of Jobs” estimates that by the year 2020, more than 7.1 million jobs will be displaced, with half of current jobs disappearing by 2050. It speculates that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in jobs that do not currently exist.

The report further estimates that 90% of future jobs will require ICT skills, while millions of new jobs will be created in the computer, mathematical, architecture and engineering fields. In the era of the fourth industrial revolution, technical and ICT-related skills across industries will also need to be supplemented by broader, stronger collaborative and social skills such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and the ability to learn and teach others.

If we are not vigilant, the development of these new technologies may lead to increased gender inequality. Artificial intelligence machines are data driven, which means that they can be designed to mimic human behaviour based on gender-biased data.

In this connection, it has been shown that using image databases that associate women with domestic chores and men with sports, creates image-recognition machines that not only replicate those biases but also amplify them.

A recent study, by the United Nations, titled “Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests” shows that “as early as the age of 6, girls are already less likely than boys to describe their own gender as ‘brilliant,’ and less likely to join an activity labelled for ‘very, very smart’ kids”. When young girls view themselves in this way they are less likely to enter technical fields as they go through the education system.

But it is a little-known fact that the first software program was written by a woman in England. Born into an aristocratic family, in 1815, Ada Lovelace escaped the clutches of ignorance through the window of social privilege and was thus able to defy the then prevailing societal norm which had it that girls did not need to be educated.

Influenced by her mother to study mathematics, Ada grew to become one of the top mathematicians of the era.

In our sustained efforts to promote greater women participation in the STI field, 14 years ago, the DST initiated the South African Women in Science Awards (SAWiSA) to encourage women who are already working in STEM fields. Among other things, SAWiSA also demonstrates that women and girls can succeed and excel in the “high value” sector of science and research.

SAWiSA finalists are working in fields as diverse as conservation biology, biotechnology, commerce and administration, early childhood development, nanotechnology and indigenous knowledge systems. A remarkable feature of this year’s edition of SAWiSA is the introduction of an award for outstanding women researchers in astronomy – this on the year in which we launched the 64-antenna MeerKAT radio telescope.

This year’s awards were held last night (23 August 2018) under the theme: “100 Years of Albertina Sisulu: Women United in Moving South Africa Forward”.  To celebrate Mama Sisulu, who mobilised women to be shapers of their own destiny, the DST has renamed the “DST Fellowship Awards”, to “DST-Albertina Sisulu Awards”.

This year’s winners include:

  • Dr Mathabatha Evodia Setati, a distinguished scientist in Natural (Physical and Life) and Engineering Sciences;
  • Maureen Nokuthula Sibiya, distinguished Scientist in Humanities and Social Sciences;
  • Adrienne Edkins, a Distinguished Young Scientist Natural (Physical and Life) and Engineering Sciences;
  • Nicolene Barkhuizen, a Distinguished Young Scientist in Humanities and Social Sciences;
  • Keolebogile Shirley Motaung, a Distinguished Scientist Research and Innovation, and;
  • Dr Lucia Steenkamp, a Distinguished Scientist Research and Innovation.

The DST will also establish an Albertina Sisulu SARChI Chair in Nursing Care.  This is because Mama Sisulu trained as a nurse and encouraged graduates to use their learning to improve people’s lives. The chair will deepen research in nursing policy and practice and contribute to the advancement of health care and the betterment of society.

We will spare no effort to ensure that women agency and freedom are among the crucial means for enhancing development. Not only will we be able to create more Ada Lovelaces but also ensure that we achieve “greater prosperity and “social progress for all”.

Comrade Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane is a member of the NEC of the ANC and Minister of Science and Technology

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