On 19 August, the University of Pretoria hosted its second annual Women in Science Symposium. The event, which was hosted virtually under the theme “#EachforEqual – An Equal World is an Enabled World”, aimed to discuss how society can close the gender gap in areas such as education and health, and create a gender-equal world. The main question in the conversation centred on how to challenge stereotypes and biases against women in order to create a gender-equal world. It was also a celebration of women’s achievements, especially in the field of science.
Gender equality is one of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. Goal five, which is gender equality, aims to end all forms of discrimination against women, to ensure equal opportunities for leadership by women, and to eliminate all forms of violence against women. A gender disparity prevails in science and research, as women are still underrepresented globally. A 2019 report from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics confirms that women account for a minority of the world’s researchers in science, with an average of only 31.8% of employees in research and development in Africa being women. According to the UNESCO Science Report, women constitute 53% of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s graduates and 43% of PhDs, but account for only 28% of researchers.
“Gender equality is one of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030.“
In the opening of the event, the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Professor Vasu Reddy, stated that there have been many gains in women’s equality but there is still much improvement needed to increase access to opportunities for women. Gender inequality still exists in many areas of our community and that the COVID-19 pandemic, a global threat to economic growth and public health, has forced governments and society to prioritise efforts towards containing the virus and managing its outcomes. Noting that addressing gender inequality has taken a back seat, he underscored the importance of remaining focused on addressing gender inequality. Prof. Reddy added that the goal of the symposium was to turn the conversations around gender injustice into real and meaningful action.
Another keynote speaker, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP, Professor Tawana Kupe, set the tone for the conversation, by highlighting that women have a critical role to play in Africa’s development. He underscored the need to ensure that striving for gender equality should be a continuous effort carried by all individuals. “Equality is not a woman’s issue. It is society’s issue. Women’s rights are human rights.” In addition, he explained that collective action and shared responsibility are key for driving a gender-equal world. In pushing for collective action, it is important to remain true to the concept of collective individualism. This according to him, means that it is also essential to be aware that individual behaviours, conversations, thoughts and actions can have an impact on larger society.
“Gender inequality still exists in many areas of our community…“
Prof. Kupe also stated that achieving gender equality and ensuring more women representation in sciences, technology and innovation is not possible without addressing toxic institutional cultures and replacing them with nurturing and enabling environments that foster diversity. These efforts should be a continuous effort that is embedded in all policies at all levels.
The guest speaker for the symposium was Professor Thuli Madonsela, renowned advocate and Law professor, who is an activist for social justice and served as the Public Protector for South Africa between 2009 and 2016. Professor Madonsela explained that equality is about giving equal consideration to every person. Recalling a statement of a former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Justice Edwin Cameron, she stated that the past has not left us, and it will not leave us alone until we confront it. There were laws in the past that gave privileges to some and prevented others from accessing equal opportunities. Today, many of those laws are abolished, but the consequent attitudes and systematic structures still exist and mould today’s society.
She also focused on the need for social justice across issues such as poverty and race, as well as the relevant role that women play in the social justice system. “We are all products of patriarchal and sexist systems so the best way to challenge this is to examine our thought processes and conscious biases”, she said. She also encouraged everyone to ask themselves how objective they are and whether their status in the current hierarchical society influences how they think.
“...achieving gender equality and ensuring more women representation in sciences, technology and innovation is not possible without addressing toxic institutional cultures“
Prof. Madonsela also shared her ideas for tackling the social injustice that can be seen in South Africa today. She encouraged ecosystems of thinking, as in a collective mentality of thinking, which recognises that uplifting one part of society will also uplift all of society. This includes teaching that improving the lives of women will not only benefit women but will also benefit men. Prof. Madonsela also highlighted that those in positions of privilege, such as herself, need to recognise it and use it to help others. It is important to leverage privilege and use the space you have to open more spaces for other women in the fight for social justice.
Another important tool highlighted by the advocate, which can be used to help achieve social justice for women, is technology. Creating and using apps to protect women’s security and using drone technology to track women in trouble are some of the examples in which South Africa can use technology to help. She stated that women need to challenge inequality by striving for excellence, even under their restrictive circumstances, adding that “the best antidote to bigotry is excellence”. Summarising her points, Prof. Madonsela explained that, in order to play a meaningful role in the social justice system, women should lead in a manner that is “ethical, purpose-driven, impact-conscious and committed to serving all of humanity with no one left behind”.
Image: Cletus Mulaudi