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Give us your daughters

Women are under-represented and underutilised in South African science, engineering and technology, says Naledi Pandor.

Over the last decade, sub-Saharan Africa’s share of global research publications has increased rapidly. Nearly half of this research has been in health sciences and this is welcome in the face of Africa’s health challenges. But the challenge for Africa is to address gender imbalances in the practice of science, technology and innovation activities.

South Africa has a well-developed university research base and network of public science research institutions focusing on priority areas. The scientific discoveries and technological developments, for instance, in the areas of nuclear research, biotechnology, advanced materials, defence technologies and aerospace and ICT have opened up avenues for innovation, industrial development and productivity in these technology-based industries.

Advances in biotechnology specifically are making headway in the development of new drugs and the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseased. Specific achievements in these areas have improved the stature of South Africa globally in important domains of scientific priority such as health, space industry and environmental sustenance.

Yet we have not unleashed the scientific talent of half of our people. We have a gender balance in favour of women at university but a research balance in favour of men. We have a gender balance in favour of women in higher education, but women lag behind in taking up science careers, as they lag behind in going on to undertake PhDs.

We have made some progress in creating an enabling environment for the progression of girls and women in the science, technology and innovation sector in South Africa. However, only one in three published scientists is a woman, and she is younger and less qualified than her male colleagues. 

In the Department of Science and Technology we run a number of incentive programmes. Our Thuthuka programme has three fast tracks for women academics: PhD, post-PhD and rating, and has been in existence since 2001. Our Centres of Excellence have multiple objectives, including building research excellence focusing on programmes and issues of national strategic importance. Our South African Research Chairs Initiative targets the development of postgraduate students and emerging researchers. At the centre of this programme lies redress and equity. In 2015 there were 157 research chairs.

Regrettably, out of the 16 Centres of Excellence funded by the department, only one is led by a woman, and merely one in five SARChI professors is a woman. Because of this imbalance, our latest call for 20 SARChI chairs is open to women only. But much more can be done.

South Africa, together with eight other African partner countries, drives the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. The SKA will be one of the biggest scientific projects the world has ever undertaken. It is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with a square kilometre of collecting area. This mega-project is an ideal platform to excite young women about a career in science, engineering and technology, and to deliver skills that will be in demand in the global knowledge economy of the future.

The involvement of women in STI activities is critical in contributing to the development of nations. We need more incentives to support and recognise women in research, as without them significant change is unlikely to take place. Visible success for women scientists will ensure women play a role in key emerging sectors of research, such as energy, health, and the bio-economy.

Naledi Pandor is South Africa’s minister of science and technology