Women in science: SA ahead of the pack

2014-11-09 15:00

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South Africa is fertile ground for women in science, and produces more female researchers than France and the UK.

But as they reach the highest rungs of the career ladder, female scientists’ progress is being hampered as they try to juggle work and family life.

Research by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) suggests that this is the case worldwide and that South Africa is doing well to produce more women in the sciences than most countries.

Last week, during a public lecture at Bloemfontein’s University of the Free State, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said: “Of the 40?000 researchers in universities, science councils and business that our latest research and development survey records, nearly half are women. That makes South Africa one of the leading countries for female researchers.”

Unesco statistics reveal that just 30% of the world’s researchers are women. In France, the figure is 26% and in the UK it’s 38%. In Africa, Namibia comes out on top – 44% of its researchers are women – and Ethiopia is near the bottom, with 8%.

Research done by different South African universities shows that women are well represented in biomedical sciences, but engineering and geosciences, for example, remain very much the domain of men.

Pandor hailed university and government initiatives that have encouraged girls and young women to pursue careers in science.

Unesco found that while a large number of women worldwide are enrolling for science degrees, only a handful see it through to postdoctoral level. The gap between men and women in science widens particularly at postdoctoral level as women make hard choices about their careers and families.

Female researchers, Unesco found, tend to work in the academic and government sectors, while men dominate the private sector, which offers better salaries and opportunities.

In South Africa, Unesco reported, just 31% of scientists in the private sector are women.

Geneticist Professor Brenda Wingfield has grappled with the choice between family and career throughout her life.

“The ideal situation would be to have to focus on only your core activity, but few mothers have this luxury,” Wingfield said.

“Tackling a career in science and being a mother is not for the faint-hearted. If you’re not sufficiently passionate and competent in your area of specialisation, succeeding will probably be very difficult.

“The reality is that trying to juggle a career and motherhood requires you to be better than average at your career.”

'I can see the glass ceiling breaking'

Professor Valerie Mizrahi wants to wipe out tuberculosis (TB) – and part of her plan to do so involves ­empowering other women.

Mizrahi, the director of the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, ­believes that getting women involved in science forms a big part of her legacy.

“Forty percent of our members [at the ­institute] are women,” says Mizrahi.

“This was not the case when I started here [four years ago],” she adds.

This year, 55% of the institute’s postgraduates and ­postdoctoral students are women – and they are leading the charge to understand TB.

Zimbabwean-born Mizrahi spent several years in the US after completing her PhD in Cape Town before family drew her back to South Africa in 1989.

She then turned her attention to TB.

Twenty-five years on, she’s still intrigued by the pathogen that causes the disease, calling it “a formidable organism”.

And she’s not just a dispassionate scientist. Her parents ­suffered from TB. Both were cured.

Her ground-breaking research on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes TB, has made her one of the world’s leading authorities on the disease. Last year, she received the coveted Grand Prix Christophe Mérieux Prize, given to a ­researcher studying infectious diseases in developing countries.

The institute’s work in understanding how HIV/Aids and TB intersect with each other, and on TB vaccine research, means it’s as much a trailblazer as its director.

“This is an exciting time for women in science,” she says.

“I don’t want to underestimate the challenges, but I can see the glass ceiling breaking.”– Yolandi Groenewald

'Mothers are undervalued'

Professor Brenda Wingfield has watched science do some amazing things.

“As an undergrad, it was an impossible dream to think that we would be able to sequence all the genes of an organism. But science has done it,” says the professor of genetics at the University of Pretoria.

“The big excitement of working in genetics and biology today is our ability to sequence entire genomes. We have access to the organism blueprint.”

Wingfield is concentrating on the fungi that cause tree diseases. She’s an A-rated scientist, the highest rating that can be awarded by South Africa’s National Research Foundation.

“We have the blueprint. We have solutions to questions that we never thought we would be able to answer.”

It’s not just science that has advanced during her career. The space for women has grown.

“I’m proudest of my postgraduate students,” she says. “And these days, women are well represented.”

But she knows how much pressure her female postdoctoral students face when making decisions about career and family. She’s had to make those choices too.

“One of the questions that I am regularly asked is how I have managed to juggle the demands of a family and a career in science. The short answer to the question is ‘with difficulty’.”

She believes companies that try to make things easier for working mothers will reap the benefits.

“I believe that mothers are an undervalued commodity in the workplace and that they bring their own set of crucial life skills to the table.”

'I want to change the world'

Biochemistry wasn’t Lungile ­Sitole’s first career choice; she wanted to be a politician. “But my father [former prisons boss Khulekani Sitole] just put his foot down and said no.”

Instead, she became a ­crusader against HIV/Aids. “I had lost so many of my family members through HIV/Aids, I wanted to find a way to fight back.”

Sitole is studying towards a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Pretoria, focusing on the effects of HIV/Aids treatment on a ­patient’s metabolism.

Her academic achievements are attracting international attention. In 2009, she was awarded a prestigious fellowship in organic chemistry at Mississippi’s Jackson State University. In August, she also received the Department of Science and Technology’s Women in Science Doctoral Fellowship Award.

Strong mentors have encouraged her to pursue her research and convinced her to keep going when she was ready to give up and “do something like go on TV”.

Her biggest challenge, she says, has been balancing her personal and professional life.

“As scientists, we work long hours and there is also loads of ­reading and writing to be done. As a young woman about to start a scientific career, my hunger for success tends to surpass my ­desire for a social life.”

She says she might still end up as a politician in the long run, but in a field where her scientific training can make a difference.

“When politicians speak, people often listen. I saw that with my father. Politicians can influence policy and bring about much-needed change. Maybe I’ll end up as minister of health. All I want to do is change the world.”

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