"Women must not be seen as 'victims', but as survivors and agents of change"

Posted on August 14, 2020

UP Head of Museums Dr Sian Tiley-Nel tells Tukkievaria why women need to amplify their efforts and voices for equality and transformation.

Gender-based violence, particularly in South Africa, has spiralled out of control, says Dr Sian Tiley-Nel, Head of UP Museums. She adds that serious action needs to be taken against this heinous crime, such as closer media attention to the male perpetrators as well as the implementation of due justice

“Too many cases are struck off the roll and left to become another statistic,” she says. “We need more convictions, even naming and shaming of perpetrators if need be. Society also needs more decent gentlemen as role models and leaders, those who are self-accountable, not by words but by their actions and deeds.”

Fathers and husbands, and other male figures, have a critical role to play and need to be more present at home. “I often feel the world needs more gentlemen and fewer men,” she says. “Women must not be seen as ‘victims’, but as survivors and agents of change. This perception might contribute to the prevention of gender-based violence, but unfortunately would not eradicate it.”

When it comes to barriers to women assuming leadership roles in the workplace, Dr Tiley-Nel believes that women bring different perspectives to leadership that are assertive, more thoughtful and deliberate (and the ability to multi-task). Women operate and work in a markedly different environment than ever before, she says. The most common barrier is the flexibility to work professionally while being a mother and wife, a women’s role cannot be bound into a singularity.

“An attitude change is needed, towards equality for women in life prospects, opportunities and the power to contribute to society economically and politically.” Particularly in the field of heritage, art conservation and curatorship there are many dynamic women often not duly recognised for their contributions.

Like many, Dr Tiley-Nel has faced her fair share of challenges. One of her greatest obstacles, she says, was matriculating in 1994, on the cusp of democracy. Also, studying at UP in Afrikaans for the first three years was difficult. “There were strong gender and language biases towards English speakers at the time. I could neither write fluently nor speak Afrikaans, and I pushed through Archaeology, a male-dominated discipline. My lecturer told me to give up Archaeology, because a female could never work in the field. Not having Maths and Science would also ruin my prospects for a career.”

But these obstacles just made her stronger and more determined. The proof is in her diverse qualifications: she rose above gender bias to get an honours degree with distinction in Archaeology, a postgraduate diploma in Heritage and Museum Studies, a Master’s in ceramic analysis and technology in Archaeology, a PhD in history and mid-career, also qualified as a conservator. Diversifying one’s career or professional portfolio is an important measure of change and willingness to adapt to change. This is the dynamism and a mark of a flexibility to being a successful leader.

Dr Tiley-Nel says she does not see challenges, but opportunities and change each day. As Head of UP Museums, she hopes to bring fresh perspectives and a broader holistic approach to university museums. “I implement the museum’s strategic objectives, a balance to structure, priorities and keep an eye on any endless possibilities – these are my main areas of responsibility. However, some days I can watch paint dry, check locks, do practical work on the collection, curate, direct, write or be creative. Lockdown has taught us to embrace the trajectory of rapid change, adapt, improvise, think more strategically and build on research creativity.”

Her career highlight thus far has been continuing as the Curator of the Mapungubwe Collection and Mapungubwe Archive, which is recognised widely as “a national treasure”. A huge accomplishment, she says, was when the collection travelled to the British Museum in 2016 and working with their curators was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Being the first academic in her family, Dr Tiley-Nel credits her parents for allowing her to pursue her interests and passions. She looks up to the narrator David Attenborough, Bill Gates for his IQ and Nelson Mandela for his love for humanity, among others – though her ultimate hero is Kenyan-born social, political and environmental activist Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize.

Her message to women is to hold themselves accountable for their prejudices, and to keep a reality check on the privileges they have. Women should amplify their efforts and voices for equality and transformation. More importantly, women should continually learn to better themselves, to take be brave and take on challenges, be strong and not be subservient to others. In the words of Wangari Maathai: “We cannot tire or give up – we owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise and walk.”



- Author Xolani Mathibela

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