Women In Science Awards: Keynote Address




13 AUGUST 2015


Dr Maureen Tong

Dr Maureen Tong


The Programme Director, Ms Leanne Manas,

The Honourable First Lady Madame Bongi Ngema-Zuma,

The Minister of Science and Technology, the Honourable Mrs Naledi Pandor,

Other Ministers and Deputy Ministers present,

The Director-General of the Department of Science and Technology, Dr Phil Mjwara,

Ambassadors and High Commissioners,

Representatives of sponsors of Women in Science Awards – L’Oreal & Tata

Other VIPs present

Ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you Minister Naledi Pandor and the Department of Science and Technology for the invitation to deliver the key-note address at the Women in Science Awards (WISA) 2015. Being a lawyer, it is an honour to be among distinguished scientists whose achievements we are celebrating tonight. The initiative to encourage and reward South African women scientists and researchers, and to profile them as role models for younger women is a very worthy exercise, given the historical underrepresentation of women in science, engineering and technology. We need more of them in our society.

Women in Science Research

In line with the theme “Science for a Sustainable Future” we will take a moment to reflect on how we are doing as a country on delivering on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) declared in September 2000, which come to an end in 2015 as we move towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Government contribution towards MDG 3, ‘to promote gender equality and empower women’ is laudable, although there is room for improvement. Several pieces of legislation have been enacted, policies have been formulated, and relevant institutions have been established. It has been said many times before, that there is room for improvement with regard to the implementation of policies.

Having said that, we applaud Minister Pandor and the Department of Science and Technology for the work being done in the area of promoting women’s participation in science and technology. As Minister Pandor has pointed out, the DST has hosted WISA since 2003 and taken several other initiatives in this regard. Women’s enrolment in higher education has increased from 48 % in 1996 to 58 % in 2013. While women were historically underrepresented in science, engineering and technology (SET), the enrolment and graduations at 48.4 % in 1996 and 51 % in 2013, are approaching the national demographics. In line with international trends however, these achievements are reversed when it comes to doctoral studies. It is, therefore, good that Minister and the Department are taking deliberate measures to ensure that we continue to see a positive results regarding the participation of women in science and research.

The April 2015 UNESCO Institute for Statistics entitled ‘Women in Research’ covering the period 2010- 2015, shows that only 30% of researchers across the globe are women. Interestingly, the report indicates that Latin America and Africa are doing better in this regard.

Latin America and the Caribbean have 45% women in research. It is noteworthy that the rate for Africa is 35.5% – South Africa has 39.7 %. In Europe the rate is 33 %. In line with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Human Development Index (HDI) that consistently puts the Nordic countries in the top 5 of human development indices, Iceland 41.2 % Sweden 35.7 % Norway 35.2% Denmark 32.9 % Finland 31.4 % are the top five achievers with regard to the number of women researchers in Europe.

Part of the explanation for the Nordic countries doing so well is that they use gender-Based quotas. The ‘She Figures’ report compiled by the European Commission in collaboration with the Helsinki Group on Women and Science shows that 36% of European Union (E.U.) scientific and management board members were women. The Nordic countries implement a quota show much higher levels of women scientists and women in management boards. For example, in Sweden, Norway and Finland all rake above 45%. Those that do not have gender-based quotas like Hungary, Cyprus, Lithuania, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Czech Republic, show less than 20% of women on scientific and management boards.

The report concludes that it is necessary to continuously and consistently apply policy measures to drive gender equality because there is no evidence of spontaneous reduction of gender inequality over time. Curt Rice, Vice President for Research and Development at the University of Tromsø in Norway, says ‘Some people think that if we just wait, it will get better, [however] … if we believe it’s important to have women at the top, then we must act.’

Minister Pandor you are therefore on the right path.

Impact of Women Leadership in Organizations

Research by McKinsey, Catalyst and other institutions regarding the Impact of Women Leadership has documented the fact that when a significant number of women (30%) participate in an organization’s leadership, the organization becomes more productive, profitable and sustainable. These findings are also consistent with research conducted by The World Bank about the impact of women on economies in the developing world.

A study entitled Results and Policy Lessons: Poverty Action Lab, India 2006 – 2007, by Luca Flabbi (IDB, Georgetown University and IZA) Mario Macis (Johns Hopkins University and IZA) Fabiano Schivardi (University of Cagliari, EIEF and CEPR) focussed on the West Bengal region of India, where quotas for female politicians in local governments had been in place since 1993. The results showed that in areas with long-serving female leaders in local government, the gender gap in teen education goals disappeared, due to the fact that girls had set higher goals for themselves. Parents were more likely to report having more ambitious education goals for their daughters, significantly narrowing the gender gap. Conversely, in villages with only men leaders, parents were less likely to want their girls to graduate from school compared to their boys. You might say it does not take rocket science to know that, however change is society is slow and deliberate action is necessary.

Esther Duflo, the economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) attributes this to role modelling because when parents and teenage girls saw women in charge, it changed their perceptions of the role of women. The findings of the report highlighted that the under-representation of female leadership is hurting young women.

Tonight we celebrate distinguished women scientists and young women scientists who have excelled in various fields of life sciences, humanities, social sciences.

It was pleasing to read the 11 August 2015 newspaper report acknowledging the achievement by Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, the honorary Professor of Public Health at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine at University of KwaZulu-Natal on being awarded an A Rating by the National Research Foundation (NRF). Her recognition as a leading international scholar in her field is highly noteworthy. In October 2015 she will be recognised by the United States Academy of Medicine, something akin to being the ‘rock star’ of scientific achievement. This is a great role model for young and emerging scientists to emulate.

MDG 1: ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’

With regard to MDG 1 which aims to ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’ The UNDP puts the poverty rate for South Africa at 58.6%. Much work is still required for us as a country to address the scourge of poverty.

We note the steps taken by the government to ameliorate consequences on unemployment and inequality. Among other policies, South Africa has introduced free primary health care, no-fee paying schools, social grants (pensions and child support), RDP housing, provision of basic and free services such as providing indigent households with a monthly free six kilolitres of water, and 50 kWh electricity. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) enables students from poor households to access higher education.

We also note especially the DST/NRF Ministerial guidelines on improving equity in the distribution of NRF bursaries and fellowships declare that postgraduate students deemed financially needy (i.e. from families whose total family income is less than R300 000 per annum) should be prioritised and given full-cost bursary support which includes tuition fees, accommodation, stipends and research related costs.

We note that the DST/NRF has established a Centre of Excellence (CoE) hosted by the University of Western Cape with the primary focus on food security. The CoE, complemented by a number of research chairs in areas related to food security, undertakes research that will identify science-based programme interventions and policy mechanisms which will help South Africa to overcome food insecurity and ensure sound and good nutrition for its citizens.

DST/NRF Thuthuka Programme

As Minister Pandor has pointed out, the DST/NRF Thuthuka Programme has contributed to 4 173 women receiving research grants. I am pleased to announce that I am part of those statistics. In 2008/2009 I was awarded a Thuthuka research grant as a newly appointed Unisa staff member to complete my PhD studies in France. Without this grant it would have proven impossible for me to transition as a student from Sweden to France and to successfully defend my thesis in France in French! These interventions are therefore bearing tangible fruits.

Minister Pandor – in her incarnation as Minister DJ on Friday 7 August 2015 on Power FM said women need to take more initiative instead of waiting to be ‘given’ opportunities. I was pleased by Minister DJ challenging the Chairman of Brand SA, Ms Chichi Maponya to lead an initiative of establishing the first woman cooperative bank in South Africa. I am aware of some initiatives, including that by the Young Women Business Network (YWBN) to galvanise youth South African women to set up a women’s cooperative bank. The National Association of South African Stockvels (NASAS) coordinates Stockvels in order to harness the long established power of group savings for greater impact. Minister DJ was therefore correct in challenging the Chairman of Brand SA to take an active role in supporting initiatives aimed at establishing the first women’s cooperative bank.

Grameen Bank, the pioneer micro-finance/micro credit bank targeting poor rural women, has shown through empirical studies and anecdotal evidence that providing productive loans to poor rural women using social collateral leads to positive health, nutrition and educational outcomes for families and communities. This is because while poor women bear the disproportionate share of providing food, health, educational and shelter needs of their families, they tend to spread the social and economic benefits at both family and community level.

The 2003 study by Elizabeth Littlefield, Jonathan Murduch, and Syed Hashemi in the Journal of Management Development, entitled ‘Is Microfinance an Effective Strategy to Reach the Millennium Development Goals?’ shows that microfinance has an impact far wider than supporting microenterprises. Poor people use financial services to increase their household incomes, build assets, and reduce their vulnerability to poverty.

Access to micro finance services also translates into better nutrition and improved health outcomes, such as higher immunization rates. It allows poor people to send more of their children to school for longer. When rural women are empowered they become more assertive and better able to confront gender inequality. Their status in their community is enhanced, as reflected in more women assuming leadership roles and thus the promotion of gender equality.

My time as research manager at the WDB Trust, a Grameen Bank replicator, has allowed me to appreciate the contribution of developmental micro-finance towards the achievement of MDG 1 to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; MDG 2 to achieve universal primary education; and MDG3 to promote gender equality and empower women. The Grameen Bank model continues to shoe more than 90% repayment rates by very poor rural women.

Government has improved access to Early Childhood Development as part of its contribution to MDG 2, promote universal primary education. In 2011 the South Africa’s primary school completion rate of 95% was above the world average of 90%. In the same year the female completion rate of 96% was higher than that of males at 93%.

MDG 4, 5, and 6  

While my training is in law, over the past five years I have had the privilege of serving on the Board of the Health Systems Trust (HST) giving me the opportunity to reflect closely on the linkages between health and development, and engage at a personal level with the important role that the health sector plays in socio-economic development.

Our health system is founded on the principles of primary health care, with the goal of ensuring better health for all, through fair and equitable access to quality health services and attaining universal coverage of the population.

However the reality in South Africa, as in other parts of our sub-continent and the developing world, is that social determinants, such as where people are born, where they grow, live and work and their access to education, have a powerful influence on health and well-being at the individual and community level. This is demonstrated by the disproportionate burden of morbidity and mortality from HIV and AIDS, TB and maternal mortality experienced by the poor and disadvantaged sectors of our society.

Indeed the AIDS epidemic at its height had a profoundly negative impact on South Africa’s progress against MDG 3, 4 and 5, namely child mortality; maternal health and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

While South Africa has experienced one of the most severe HIV epidemics globally, the national response, premised on strong investment over the past decade in the world’s largest HIV treatment programme and a highly successful Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme have paid notable dividends. The reduction of mother to child transmission from over 20% to less than 2%, has led to reductions in infant and child mortality since 2007. The MDG country report of 2013 predicted that the targets for both infant and under-five mortality rates would be met. South Africa has substantially increased life expectancy over the years.

UNAIDS announced on 14 July 2015 in a reported entitled “How AIDS Changed Everything: MDG 6 – 15 years, 15 Lessons of Hope from the AIDS Response” lauds South Africa for its contribution to the achievement of the MDG 6 target of “halting and reversing the spread of HIV” stating: ‘South Africa has the largest HIV treatment programme in the world, with more than 3.1 million people on antiretroviral therapy, funded almost entirely from domestic sources. In the last five years alone, AIDS-related deaths have declined by 58% in South Africa.’

The UNAIDs report says the world has reached the target of putting 15 million people on life-saving anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs) by 2015 – nine months ahead of schedule. It says the world is on track to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).’

The economic investment in the AIDS response and the strengthening of health systems is therefore paying dividends. Since 2000 the world has invested more than US $ 187 billion, the United States of America being the largest international contributor, having invested more than US $ 59 billion through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) has reported significant increases in life expectancy for both sexes since 2006, rising from a low of 51.6 in 2005, to 58.7 in 2012. The UNAIDS report says South Africa’s life expectancy reached 61 by the end of 2014. South Africa is working towards reaching an HIV-free generation by 2030.

There still remains a tremendous amount of work to be done and huge challenges ahead with the unfinished business from the MDGs, globally and here in South Africa. We need to continue to work on this as part of the sustainable development agenda. South Africa still has an unacceptably high maternal mortality rate, and is not doing well as far as reaching MDG 4 targets. While the global rate of new HIV infections has declined significantly, infection rates remain high in South Africa requiring re-invigoration of our prevention efforts. The collaborative efforts between the National Department of Health, the development partners and other stakeholders will be play a big role in helping our country to meet this challenge.

Role Modelling – being State President and a Scientist is a Woman’s Job

Returning to the theme of role-modelling, may I share with you a piece I read in the August issue of a leading women and business magazine in South Africa. It concerned an interview of Ms Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, the former Minister of Public Service and Administration (DPSA), who is the current Special Envoy on Gender at the African Development Bank (AfDB). She shares an anecdote about a young Liberian boy being asked to say what he wanted to become when he grows up. The boy confidently said he wishes to become the country Vice President. Pressed on why he would not want to President of Liberia, he promptly said being President is a woman’s job. Being raised in a country in which the President, Ms Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first female President in Africa, the Liberian boy thought it a natural that being president is a woman’s job.

Reports in the media suggest that South Africa might be starting to embrace the idea of a woman president. Perhaps one day our young boys and girls would think the job of State President is a woman’s job. Perhaps sooner rather than later we would be setting up a Presidential Library in honour of a former woman State President in South Africa!

Moving closer to WISA tonight, we are aware that South Africa, as we are working towards getting more women involved and leading in the disciplines of science and research we may reach a day when young boys and girls think becoming a scientist is a woman’s job!

I congratulate the Distinguished Women Scientists and the Young Women Scientists were are celebrating tonight. May those receiving the DST Fellowships and Tata Scholarships take courage. I hope to be invited to the future WISA event when we will be celebrating some of them as distinguished scientists.

To all of us as women – I share this piece by Marianne Williamson, from A Return to Love

You are Powerful Beyond Measure

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frighten us. We ask ourselves: Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we learn to let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.


Let your light shine


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