A sustainable world requires women scientists to be heard

“Excellent science and innovation require the talents of women and men. We need the complementary skills and values of both genders to create a balanced, holistic approach to leadership.”

These are the words of Professor Catherine Ngila, the acting executive director of the African Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the prestigious L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science International awards. She was selected as the Laureate for Africa and the Arab States for her ground-breaking contribution to water quality and water resource management in Africa.

She has pioneered nanotechnology-based analytical methods for monitoring and removing industrial water pollutants, thereby creating a major positive impact by enabling millions of families to benefit from safer drinking water.

She epitomises the aspirations of women in science, and her research complements this year’s UNESCO theme, ‘Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Water Unites Us’ for the 7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly.

Water is at the heart of all 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because it is the basis for life on this planet, and critical, not just for the survival of all 7 billion people living here, but for all life forms on earth.

According to the United Nations, 2.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water. In South Africa, about 19% of the rural population lacks access to a reliable water supply and 33% do not have basic sanitation services.

Water is a fundamental ingredient for food and energy production, manufacturing and providing clean and sustainable energies. This places significant pressure on scientists, especially those in the water sector to push the boundaries of transdisciplinary research and employ digital technology and innovative thinking to find solutions to the challenges we face.

It calls for the voices of women scientists to also be heard, so that their perspectives are incorporated in shaping the future. This necessitates adequate investment directed towards women scientists so that they can use their knowledge to influence policies and contribute to solutions that promote sustainable development, employment, health, food security and peace.

Number of women is growing, but …

Available statistics show that the number of women in science worldwide is growing. Over the past 20 years, the global community has taken significant strides in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science. According to UNESCO, 54% of students who get a bachelor degree in science today are female.

Unfortunately, most of the senior echelons of academia and research in many countries, including our own, do not reflect nearly the same statistics.

As an example, in South Africa, black female South African professors constitute less than 17% of the total academic workforce. Furthermore, across the 26 universities in South Africa, only five have a female principal and vice-chancellor – a mere 19%.

Globally, less than 4% of Nobel Prizes for science have ever been awarded to women. To a large extent, this can be attributed to the ‘leaky academic pipeline’ in action – where the proportion of women decreases at each career stage, from postgraduate to postdoctoral researcher, lecturer, senior lecturer and professor.

What we need is to actively increase the percentage of women scientists at higher levels, and make sure that women can advance without sacrificing motherhood. This calls for a multipronged approach at the individual, family and societal levels, and a shift in making the workplace more conducive to women.

Creating an enabling environment

At the University of Pretoria (UP), we are committed to gender balance, equal opportunity and women’s empowerment at all levels of academia. UP is home to more than 2,217 academics and researchers, of which 57% are women. We have 332 professors, among whom 37% are women.

Women currently account for 39% of UP’s total of 610 National Research Foundation-rated researchers, and 50% of our South African Research Chair Initiative positions are held by women.

We have a number of support interventions that aid women’s career progression into leadership and decision-making roles, such as access to research grants to aid early career researchers in enhancing their research and publishing productivity, which is essential for progress along the academic pipeline.

The research grants are also available to early career male researchers, but the university ensures that a high percentage of the recipients are women.

The grants include teaching replacement support to lighten young academics’ teaching load so that they can focus on their research. A suitably qualified candidate is paid to cover the researcher’s teaching workload for a period of up to 12 months.

Early career researchers are also given time off spanning 6-12 months, to focus on completing their PhD, writing papers for publications, books, book chapters, and other research outputs. And they are given networking support, which allows the researcher to attend conferences and travel to research institutions of their choice anywhere in the world.

The increase in women researchers everywhere is helping to change the world through their discoveries, and they are also role models for younger women wanting to pursue scientific careers and break the glass ceiling. With technological advances, accompanied by new job opportunities, there is a growing demand for graduates, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM subjects.

We need to reimagine the education sector to be equitable, inclusive and diverse, with skills development and training for the full participation of women and girls in the Fourth and Fifth Industrial Revolutions. We still have a long road ahead towards achieving a gender balance of scientists, starting in childhood.

Encouraging young girls in Africa to pursue mathematics and science is a key factor. Joint initiatives and collaboration between and among key societal actors – such as ministries of education and science, industry and civil society – need to drive the change that girls and young women need.

In turn, this will spur shifts in economic, social and education policies that will provide girls and women with equal access to education, safe and clean water, healthcare, decent work and representation in political and economic decision-making processes for a more sustainable world.

As Ngila says: “One day, we will live in a world where girls are encouraged to study science, where women have adequate support to balance the responsibilities of research and motherhood, and where scientists are judged purely on the merits of their discoveries and the potential of their work to change the world.”

This will see the dawning of Generation Equality, which will herald a more prosperous, peaceful, equitable and fair world that is ultimately better for both women and men alike.

The University of Pretoria will be hosting a symposium, open for registration titled ‘Gender, Diversity and Inclusion: Water Unites Us’ on 19 August, which will focus on women in science.

This commentary was written by Dr Rakeshnie Ramoutar-Prieschl, the head of research capacity development at the University of Pretoria, a committee member of the Southern African Research & Innovation Management Association, and the chairperson of Child Welfare South Africa, Roodepoort.