Equity and science: Saving a seat for women at the table

When thinking about biodiversity conservation and climate adaptation, issues of equity – including gender equity – are not only important but absolutely fundamental, according to Professor Emma Archer from the University of Pretoria’s (UP) department of geography, geoinformatics and meteorology.

Archer was a member of a multigenerational panel of UP women – scientists and female student leaders – addressing the theme of “Gender, Diversity and Inclusion: Water Unites Us” as part of the fourth annual University of Pretoria Women in Science Symposium held on 19 August 2022.

A yearly event, the symposium recognises and celebrates the scientific achievements of the university’s female academics, highlighting the fact that women scientists are leading groundbreaking research.

Friday’s symposium was specifically geared towards showcasing best practice strategies, applied solutions and experiences in addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 – which is aimed at providing clean water and sanitation.

Professor Emma Archer, Image: University of Pretoria

Social justice and equity

In her presentation Archer addressed the fact that anthropogenic, or human-driven, climate change has impacted biodiversity and is changing the goalposts for what is considered successful conservation into the future.

“What we consider successful conservation of biodiversity has to include notions of social justice and equity and that includes, but is not limited to, gender equity,” she said.

For much of the last century, and even today, nature conservation has focused on the idea of preserving nature, with the aim of maintaining and restoring nature to the state it was in prior to human interference.

“In this perceived state of nature, humans are not part of a healthy conserved landscape … Such an approach regards humans as external to and detrimental to nature, and shows little concern for sustainable use regimes, or notions of equity and social justice – especially towards indigenous peoples impacted by conservation – and, frequently, marginalised groups such as women,” said Archer.

She stated that a better way to pursue the protection of biodiversity under climate change involves a multiple benefit approach which can produce more than one positive outcome. Such outcomes might include the protection of biodiversity, mitigation of climate change and support for human livelihoods.

Reducing deforestation, for example, “if done well” through a co-beneficial approach, could generate positive outcomes for biodiversity and reduce the exposure risk to zoonotic diseases while maintaining carbon stocks. It could also contribute to carbon sequestration and storage, and lead to positive benefits for humans both locally and globally in relation to water services, human health and forest-related livelihoods, she said.

However, the way it is implemented is important, warned Archer. “It must be done in a participatory manner, moving on from traditional paradigms of conservation to engage with everyone, and not only the loudest voices.”

A seat at the academic table

For Professor Tivani Mashamba-Thompson, the forum provided an opportunity for her to share her academic journey – from student to highly accomplished diagnostics academic and deputy dean of research and postgraduate studies at the faculty of health sciences at UP – and to inspire and advise younger black female academics who might be seeking a seat at the table of academic achievement and leadership.

Mashamba-Thompson said she had been motivated to pursue a senior role in academia so as to “speak for the voiceless” and make a difference in black communities by closing the achievement gap for black women in academia.

“Since I started in academia I focused on addressing the achievement gap among people like myself,” she told the symposium. While at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, for example, she and her colleagues launched an emerging academics peer mentorship forum, which was well-supported by the university administration and aimed at creating an enabling platform for career progression and excellence among young academics from underrepresented groups.

The need for such an approach in South African universities was confirmed when Fikile Sibanda, UP’s Students Representative Council deputy secretary, told the symposium that as a first generation university student she wished she had “been exposed to safe spaces that included black women” – people who looked like her and could serve as aspirational role models.

Responding to this point and others, Professor Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, director of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence in Food Security based at UP, noted the need for African women to mentor their younger counterparts, for mentorship models “to build a cadre of women that can hold hands” and take an interest not only in whether they were at the table, but “where at the table are they sitting”.

The importance of competencies

In her presentation, Mashamba-Thompson emphasised that while systemic barriers to black women academics were very real, mastery of the required competencies was also needed to ensure progression. “We must be prepared to gain competencies,” she told participants during discussion time.

After she had graduated her first PhD student, Mashamba-Thompson said she perceived a gap in her research knowledge which motivated her to enrol in a clinical research course at Harvard Medical School.

“It was important for me to do it at Harvard because I wanted to get to the table quickly and get the knowledge. I suffered but achieved it and was honoured at Harvard with a commendation for research excellence.”

The experience empowered her to learn even more and she successfully applied for a CTN (CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network) post-doctoral fellowship.

“It’s important to prioritise the gaining of knowledge,” she reiterated during question time.

Mashamba-Thompson said it was important for young women researchers to take ownership of their careers because “no one else will do it for you”.