Women’s Academy a signal that ‘numbers do matter’

A Women’s Academy to consolidate all existing gender programmes and help to nurture the potential of all women, from first-year students to the professoriate, has been announced by University of Pretoria Vice-Chancellor Tawana Kupe in South Africa.

The announcement came at the fourth annual University of Pretoria (UP) Women in Science Symposium held on 19 August 2022 with the theme “Gender, Diversity and Inclusion: Water Unites Us”.

Scientists probed the water nexus in achieving the three pillars of sustainable development, namely economic prosperity, social justice, and environmental integrity. Best practices, strategies and experiences in addressing the challenges of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation) were also shared.

At the event, Kupe said the leadership at UP had worked hard over several years to empower more women and create conditions for them to empower themselves to achieve scientific excellence and participate equally in solving the great challenges facing humanity.

Along with a wide range of “highly intentional” gender transformative initiatives, the new academy is aimed at achieving what Kupe described, during a structured discussion towards the end of the symposium, as the “institutional culture we want”.

He said when it comes to diversity and inclusion “the numbers do matter” because under-representation of women and other groups is huge.

“But it can’t stop at the numbers,” he said. “Inclusion means [conceiving of] the institutional culture we want … the co-creation of a new institutional culture that balances out power between genders.” This included a challenge to the notion of gender binaries, he said.

At UP 39% of a total of 610 rated researchers and 50% of its South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) chair grantholders are women.

In addition, the university is home to over 2,217 academics and researchers, of which 57% are women. Of the 332 professoriate cohorts, 37% are women.

“These numbers reflect that we prioritise gender balance and that the perspectives and leadership styles of both genders are important ingredients to the success of UP,” Kupe said.

Best practices to support early career academics

But what can an institution do to ensure that young women academics have access to support interventions that will aid their career progression into leadership and decision-making roles?

Kupe outlined some of the initiatives aimed at emerging researchers. One-on-one mentorships, for instance, enable early career researchers to work with established mentors to build their confidence, help with research focus, become a published author, strengthen postgraduate supervision skills and become established in a specific research area, which can be measured, among others, by the National Research Foundation rating funding instrument.

Research grants, which are essential to aid the early career researchers in fulfilling their career aspirations and expectations and enhancing their research productivity, is another tool.

Such grants could help to pay for a temporary teaching replacement for a researcher to free up time, as well as for sabbaticals, support with PhD studies such as registration and book costs, and the coverage of travel and networking expenses to attend academic events.

The university also funds workshops and writing retreats to help researchers to build support networks for shared learnings among peers. This supports research productivity and time.

Scientists who have excelled

Kupe said that whereas these initiatives support early career academics, he also wanted to pay tribute to excellent scientists at the institution.

Professor Zodwa Dlamini, who is the scientific director of the South African Medical Research Council/UP Precision Prevention and Novel Drug Targets for HIV-Associated Cancers and who was awarded a National Research Foundation (NRF) South African Research Initiative (SARChI) chair.

Professor Nelishia Pillay was recently awarded an NRF SARChI chair in machine learning, while Professor Heide Hackmann is an international science diplomat, advisor and policy-maker, and former CEO of the International Science Council. She is also the interim director at the university’s Future Africa Institute.

Maxi Schoeman was commended for her research on African security issues and South African foreign policy. Professor Celia Abolnik, for her work as research chair in poultry health, and Professor Sheryl Hendricks for advancing food systems theory and identifying the solutions to food system challenges.

Dr Lerato Mokoena from the faculty of theology, who was commended for her work with young people, and Professor Chitiga Mabugu whose research interests are in tracing and analysing the effects of government policies on households, and on the broader economy.

Kupe said challenging adverse social norms and gender stereotypes to enable transformation was necessary.

“[We are calling on our] fellow brothers and sisters nationally, continentally and globally to ensure that women’s rights are protected and that approaches to understanding gender equality and gender justice, including feminism and intersectionality, are given due priority … [and] becomes embedded into our policy, planning and budgeting efforts across all levels and dimensions of decision-making,” he said.