Prof Inglesi-Lotz elected as co-chair of SAYAS for 2020

Posted on December 06, 2019

This year I had the privilege of working with amazing people from the broader scientific community as a co-leader of the Working Group of Women in Science at the Global Young Academy (GYA), and as a member of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) – where I was recently elected as a co-chair for 2020.

Gender equality, promotion of youth participation, the labour force and policy decision-making are issues identified as key by the United Nations to achieving a sustainable future for all. The academic and scientific community still exhibits signs of gender and generational gaps, not only in employment and promotion opportunities but also in the workload allocation and work conditions. The African continent and other less developed geographical regions lag behind in terms of the number of female and young researchers participating in academia and in their economies. The overall multigenerational work environment provides a learning platform for all involved. Younger – particularly female academics – live with a constant feeling of incompetence, trying to balance work and family responsibilities. They tend to overcompensate, following the mind-set of older generations that “work more hours means success”, this leads to mental health issues.

In my mind, that level of unconscious gender and youth discrimination is more dangerous. On paper, programmes and policies in South African higher education institutions and society ensure the participation of women. In many cases, they make sure they intervene to correct historical discrepancies. However, UNESCO still reports that women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields publish less and “climb the ladder” at slower speeds than their male counterparts. Understanding the reasons behind these two speeds is imperative in coming up with appropriate solutions. The reasons lie between financial considerations, family responsibilities and workplace conditions. Generally speaking, young and female researchers tend to receive more teaching and administrative responsibilities, particularly in the first few years of employment. This leaves them with less time for research work, widening the gap with the senior staff in terms of research productivity.

Women and youth have the potential to bring fresh air into academia. Women understand that social issues and challenges – and their perspective – might be the missing factor at policy decision “tables”. Admittedly, policies and programmes slowly but surely make efforts towards equality in science and academia. Higher education institutions and research centres are certainly more aware and mindful. So what more needs to be done?

There is a need to break the cycle of ‘lack of leading women researchers’ – and hence a lack of role models for young women. Established researchers need to provide live examples that a successful career in science and academia is possible. Young women need role models that are inspiring but at the same time real, role models with which they can associate. In the current world of social media, doing so is neither time consuming nor expensive, it can become part of the academic citizenship of every female researcher. Mentoring and exposing young people to career options that they might have not thought of is important. At the same time, if mentors are open about the challenges they have overcome, then future scientists can fight the sense of isolation, and cultural and societal perceptions and stereotypes about scientists. 

- Author Professor Roula Inglesi-Lotz

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