'As women, we cannot overvalue our support networks nor undervalue a positive work-life balance'

Posted on August 14, 2020

Dr Rakeshnie Ramoutar-Prieschl, Head of Research Capacity Development at UP, chats to Primarashni Gower about her career highlights, future aspirations, why work-life harmony is vital for women to achieve their career goals and why gender equality education will set SA on a path to ending gender-based violence.

Tell us about your educational qualifications and the positions you hold.

I obtained my master’s degree in Biotechnology and my doctorate in Business Management. I also hold a Management Advancement Programme qualification from Wits Business School.

I am on the Executive Committee for the Organisation for Women in Science for Developing Countries, and am Chair of the Board of Trustees for Child Welfare South Africa. In my previous position, I led the Research Infrastructure [RI] portfolio at the National Research Foundation [NRF]. During my tenure, I advocated for a number of policies, strategies and frameworks that have since provided the foundation for establishing and sustaining several RI platforms in the country. I have also published a book on this subject, which aims to aid countries in the global south to frame their own national RI roadmaps.

What does your role at UP entail?

I am Head of Research Capacity Development within the Department of Research and Innovation. My portfolio extends to grant management. We assist researchers with the submission of grant applications to national and international funders; and help with financial award management, reporting, and monitoring and evaluation. 

We assist early career researchers meet their research goals by hosting workshops on topics such as grant writing and building networks with industry; providing grants to aid in the completion of doctoral studies or publications; and by facilitating mentorship.

In terms of strategic interventions, we work with the Department of Higher Education and Training [DHET] on managing partnerships in support of the university staff doctoral programme. One of the key projects we manage is the US-SA Higher Education Network; key partners include Rutgers University in Newark, the University of Venda and the DHET.

What are your aspirations at UP?

My aspiration is to establish an early career researcher academy at UP that drives strongly resourced interventions to support early career researchers transition into established researchers. This investment has a two-fold return: increased research productivity and increased grant income. Such an investment contributes towards building, nurturing and sustaining a talented human capital development pipeline that feeds into increasing the number of NRF-rated researchers at UP.

What are some of the challenges of your job?

Some include handling and managing audit queries from different funders; others involve managing people and their expectations while keeping them motivated. Regardless of the challenge, I advocate for an open-door policy. My philosophy is to share the challenge, speak honestly and find an amicable solution jointly, which might involve a compromise.

What do you consider as a highlight in your career?

A project I was driving when I was at the NRF to establish a Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy [HRTEM]. Physicists had been approaching the ministry since 1984 to support the acquisition of an HRTEM for the country to advance microscopy and nanotechnology research. Much later, in 2009, the Department of Science and Technology requested that a business plan and sustainability plan be developed for establishing such a facility in SA.

In partnership with universities from around the world, I put in place the processes and mechanisms for the development of these two critical documents that led to the funding and eventual launch of this facility in 2011. It was deemed the most technologically advanced imaging machine available in Africa at the time. This facility has established itself as a leading international research facility with publications in high-impact factor journals, successful local and international collaborations, and a strong focus on human capital development.

How difficult is it to manage a career and family?

Both play an important role in my life. I am blessed to have in place a supportive network: my husband and our families. As women, we cannot overvalue our support networks nor undervalue a positive work-life balance. Both are critical to ensuring that women have highly productive professional careers.

What are some of the barriers to women assuming leadership roles in the workplace?

While women have come a long way in this sphere, most still battle to overcome barriers in their careers. These include glass ceilings that exist as a result of an unconscious bias towards women who are often overlooked for leadership roles. This needs to be dismantled and open conversations are needed to raise the profile of women in the workplace.

Also, many women feel they have to prove their worth in the workplace, and this desire to succeed professionally can push us to set aside our own well-being. Harmonious work-life integration improves women’s physical, emotional and mental well-being, and helps us achieve our career aspirations. In this regard, support structures, mentors and role models play a critical role.

Harassment of any kind, is a non-negotiable in the workplace. I am proud of UP’s zero-tolerance approach to all forms of harassment; sexual harassment in particular is deemed an unacceptable infringement of the core values of integrity, human dignity, privacy and mutual respect.

Lastly, socio-cultural stereotypes are embedded since birth – men and women alike have a critical role to play in creating a gender-equal society by re-educating the next generation in a culturally appropriate manner.

How do you think gender-based violence (GBV) should be eradicated?

Violence against women and girls is often rooted in gender-based discrimination and social or cultural norms that perpetuate such violence. Most interventions focus on services for survivors. However, the best way to end violence against women and girls is prevention, which should start early in life by educating young boys and girls about respectful relationships and gender equality. This early stage is a critical time when values and norms around gender equality are forged. Parallel efforts in education and awareness campaigns for boys and men alike would help accelerate progress in preventing and hopefully eradicating GBV. 

Communities and the country should take collective, decisive action towards making the home and public spaces safer for women and girls, ensuring women’s economic autonomy and security, and increasing women’s participation and decision-making powers. Higher education institutions also have a role to play by focusing part of the curriculum on the prevention of GBV through the promotion of gender equality, human rights and female empowerment.

I strongly believe that mentorship, support structures and gender-sensitive policies are potential enablers for closing the gender gap in the workplace.

What advice would you give to women?

Every woman has a voice – let it be heard regardless of how uncomfortable the subject might be and let it be heard for the value that we as women can add. Collectively we can break the subconscious barriers and bias that hold us back and start to change the discourse by proactively promoting equality in relationships, families, homes, society and the workplace.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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