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Don’t be afraid of outperforming others, says UP innovator Prof Alice Chan

Posted on August 09, 2019

In part three of our #WomenofUP series this August, we speak to Professor Alice Chan who lectures in Innovation Management at the Graduate School of Technology Management, Faculty of Engineering, Build Environment and Information Technology. She asserts that women should have the mentality that they are not worth less than men.

Tell us about your background and qualifications.

I was born in Taiwan and my family immigrated to South Africa in 1991. I started learning in the South African education system from Standard 5 (Grade 7) at a primary school in Newcastle. At that time I had limited English capability, but the friendliness of my South African classmates who had conversations with me helped me to improve my English. In 1995 my family decided to move to Pretoria so I could get a better education. I studied at Pretoria High School for Girls from Standard 8. Furthermore, I obtained colours in mathematics, accounting and biology when I matriculated in 1997. Despite my other interests in becoming a dentist or an accountant, I chose to study Electronic Engineering at UP.

I obtained my BEng (Electronic Engineering) at UP and then my Honours, Master’s and PhD degrees at the Graduate School of Technology (GSTM) at UP in Technology Management. I am more of a people’s person and the management side (the ‘softer’ side) of engineering seemed to suit me. I enjoy management research in which I can involve organisations/teams/people as participants in my research studies. I prefer to face people rather than machines because people can share their ideas and thoughts with me and at the same time I can be inspired by them.

What do you do at UP? 

I am an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Technology Management, EBIT. In this Graduate School there are three main focus areas: Technology and Innovation Management; Project Management and Engineering Management. I am in the field of Innovation Management in which I focus on exploring empirically how the networks among people/teams/organisations can influence innovation activities and outcomes. It is important to look at these networks as they allow ideas and knowledge to flow so that the learning can take place for positive innovation. These networks allow people to build stronger relationships so that trust can be developed for better coordination and collaboration for innovation activities. My job is to focus on teaching and research in this field of knowledge as well as being an academic coordinator of the Master’s research programme in our department. I am also a committee member of the faculty’s ethics committee and I make sure that research projects are conducted without violating any ethical concerns and are therefore of a high standard.

My research is mainly focused on social networks among people/teams/organisations and innovation. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is mainly about digital connections among people and devices. So from the network perspective the fundamental theory (such as ties and actors) still applies. Therefore from this perspective one wonders if 4IR is just old wine in a new bottle?

Professor Alice Chan

Why have you chosen this career? 

I enjoy being a lecturer and also a supervisor to my Master’s/PhD students. I believe that knowledge sharing is important for benefiting society. The University has provided us with support in teaching the students in more innovative ways. I have attended some of the in-house training such as E-learning for academics where we learnt how to design the course using hybrid learning methods. With this kind of learning platform, our postgraduate students who only come to campus during the block weeks can create a more cohesive and social learning groups online. The webinar sessions that I have created on clickUP (student portal) also allow the students to have more personal contacts with me during their research projects without physically being on campus. Besides giving my postgraduate students academic support, some of them come to me for advice when they feel that they want to give up their research because of personal issues. Being a woman who can empathise with people who experience problems, I tend to have patience in convincing them not to give up and convince them to carry on with their studies.

Describe a typical day. 

A typical day involves replying to emails, meetings with students (either online or on campus) about their research and doing research in the field of network and innovation. Due to UP’s emphasis on international collaborations I engage international scholars in research via Skype. I mainly collaborate with scholars from Tilburg University, The Netherlands, as my PhD supervisor, Professor Leon Oerlemans is based there. He not only inspired me to study the relation between network and innovation, but also to believe in myself when I was a young female researcher during my PhD studies. Besides academic activities, I love to bake for my colleagues. I had the privilege of being chosen as the final 12 in the country for the South African Bake Off competition that showed on BBC in 2017. I won the title “Star Baker” for three times in the history of SA Bake Off.

Do you think more women should enter the field of innovation?

Innovation requires creativity and from the argument that both men and women have the same cognitive capabilities, there should not be any gender differences in terms of generating creative ideas. These ideas not only can solve problems but also generate new opportunities in the society. Women are under-represented in science, technology and innovation (STI) and it’s not due to innate ability, but the challenges that most women have faced throughout history. Challenges such as gender inequality and family responsibilities. I had a personal experience when one of my female friends told me that her senior manager informed her that in order to climb up the career ladder she cannot be married or have children.

I think it is important that women enter the field of STI not only because they have the same abilities as men have, but they also have better social skills (such as they are better listeners). From a network perspective, if one has strong networks (relationships) with others, ideas and knowledge can flow easier.

Do you think that women shy away from careers in the field of innovation? 

I think with increasing number of female students in engineering (what I have observed for the past few years at EBIT) women do not shy away in pursuing the career in nowadays. However, in general due to other challenges like taking care of their children and the culture of engineering, that it is still male dominated, most women maybe not able to continue pursuing this profession in STI. In South Africa there is an emphasis on gender equality and women empowerment and therefore women in South Africa have now better chances to overcome their problems and pursue their professions.

What advice do you have for women who want to pursue careers in innovation? 

Think outside the box and use your good social skills to build networks for innovation. Innovation comes from the combination of knowledge and ideas. Women are known to have higher emotional intelligence and therefore this is beneficial to build strong networks for the transferring of knowledge and ideas. Do not be afraid of outperforming others and if the credit is taken away from you due to gender biases, use the support of your organisation to protect what you have achieved. “Women are not worth less than men,” is the mentality we should all have.

Look out for more profiles of amazing #WomenofUP and read about those we have already featured as we celebrate Women's Month:

Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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