Remarks by the Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, at the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, Johannesburg

I would like to thank the Thabo Mbeki Foundation for inviting me to participate in this important dialogue about the important role of women in advancing Africa’s development.

To drive development in the modern world, science, technology and innovation have to be placed at the centre of the developmental agenda. Without sufficient participation of women in science and technology, Africa will remain saddled with many developmental challenges.

Recent reviews of the South African system of innovation show that the participation of women in the research system has grown substantially. In 2013/14, including doctoral and postdoctoral students, women comprised 44 percent of research and development (R&D) personnel. However, significant inequality persists, especially at the higher levels. Black women make up less than five percent of the full professoriate. This represents a significant challenge for making the research system more inclusive, diverse and resilient.

A world that is deprived of women’s participation in science, technology and innovation is a world that is poorer in terms of perspectives essential to addressing gender dimensions and the burden of infectious diseases, which often affect women disproportionately. Part of our responsibility as the Department of Science and Technology (DST) is to fund researchers, and we have realised that along the researcher pipeline, women mysteriously disappear. We have realised that this is because our funding model is not adequate.

We recently initiated a process of restructuring our research funding model, especially with regard to the funding of women researchers. Part the limitation of the current funding model is that it does not cater for women who want to start families. For this reason, a women often has to choose between continuing to conduct research and starting a family. And if she does decide to start a family, keeping up with her research means cutting short the time for breastfeeding. Admittedly, the situation I am describing goes beyond funding, speaking also to the capacitation of the work environment with facilities for mothers and their young children.

With the current funding model, mothers who are researchers are not able to travel with their children. In addition, most scientific conferences are conceptualised around male preferences, in that the facilities for mothers I referred to above are seldom made available. Once again, women are presented with obstacles that make it very difficult for them to remain in the field. This in part explains the appalling number of female professors.

According to the 2018 World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report, “the largest gender disparity is on Political Empowerment, which today maintains a gap of 77,1%. The Economic Participation and Opportunity gap is the second-largest at 41,9%, while the Educational Attainment and Health and Survival gaps are significantly lower at 4,4% and 4,6%, respectively. This means that we have more women and girls entering the education system, but they fail to find opportunities and consequently their economic participation remains low.”

The report further says that “all eight geographical regions assessed in the report have achieved at least 60% gender parity, and two have progressed above 70%.” And it goes on to say that “if current rates were to be maintained in the future, the overall global gender gap will close in 61 years in Western Europe, 70 years in South Asia, 74 years in Latin America and the Caribbean, 135 years in Sub-Saharan Africa, 124 years in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 153 years in the Middle East and North Africa, 171 years in East Asia and the Pacific, and 165 years in North America.”

Evidently, to attain gender parity in the area of science and technology will take even longer. This means that we need to radically change the pace at which we are transforming the system of science and innovation in favour of women.

In this regard, the DST has initiated a number of programmes to intervene positively and ensure that we bring more women into the system of science and innovation.

Last year, we established 10 OR Tambo Africa Research Chairs, which will be located at various institutions across the African continent. These chairs will focus on research priorities identified by each host institution in conjunction with the Science Granting Councils Initiative and the African Research Universities Alliance, and in alignment with the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024. Gender, disciplinary and geographical spread issues will be the underlying considerations in the awarding of a chair. At least 60% of the chairs will be held by women, and up to 40% in the humanities and social sciences. Each chair will be applicable for one five-year term in the first instance, with the possibility of renewal for up to two additional terms of five years each, subject to excellent performance and availability of funds.

Locally, we introduced the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), and more recently have managed to increase the number of women appointments in these positions to 40% of the 201 current research chairs.

Furthermore, for the past 14 years, the DST has been running the South African Women in Science Awards (SaWiSA), to encourage and reward women who are already working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Among other things, SAWiSA demonstrates that women and girls can succeed and excel in areas of science and research that have always been regarded as the sole preserve of men.

SAWiSA finalists work in fields as diverse as conservation biology, biotechnology, commerce and administration, early childhood development, nanotechnology, and indigenous knowledge systems. To celebrate the completion of the 64-antenna MeerKAT radio telescope, last year’s edition of SAWiSA introduced an award for outstanding women researchers in astronomy. We also decided to rename the “DST Fellowship Awards” as the “DST-Albertina Sisulu Fellowship Awards” in honour of the centenary of Albertina Sisulu, which we celebrated last year.

We have also started the process of establishing an Albertina Sisulu SARChI Chair in Nursing Care, which will be awarded to a woman researcher to work in this important area.

At a continent-wide level, the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Awards for Scientific Excellence stands out for its regional awards, which specifically recognise women who are front-runners in STEM careers and their utilisation of STEM in solving national challenges that also have a transnational face. The Next Einstein Forum is also gaining traction in igniting cross-sectoral dialogue on bridging the gap for women in STEM. With a keen focus on raising up the next generation of African scientists, the Next Einstein Fellows Programme is a select initiative which recognises Africa’s best young scientists and technologists. At least 40% of these innovators and emerging leaders are women.

We are also cognisant of the fact that we are implementing initiatives for gender transformation in a system that is already undergoing transformation. I am referring to the technological transformation commonly known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the same way that the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution have the potential to leapfrog countries from being behind technologically to being at the technological cutting edge, I believe that these technologies can also help us to fast-track gender transformation. For example, technologies such as virtual reality and the Internet of Things can help us overcome the problem of researchers who are mothers by creating virtual workstations.

However, the Global Gender Gap Report to which I referred has also found that “only 22% of artificial intelligence professionals globally are female, compared to 78% who are male”. This is not encouraging, as it is a mirror image of the gender inequalities we have witnessed in the usage of ICT. If we do not do something about it, women will become the objects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

There is a lot that still needs to be done, and there is a lot that we can do to advance and enhance the role of women in science and innovation. Increasing women’s participation will in turn lead to greater women’s participation in Africa’s development.

I thank you.

Source: Department: Science and Technology (DST)

Athletic General