UP hosts first ever virtual Women in Science Symposium to celebrate contribution made by women

Posted on August 25, 2020

Professor Thuli Madonsela, former Public Protector and current Social Justice Chair at Stellenbosch University, was the keynote speaker during the virtual Women in Science Symposium hosted recently by the University of Pretoria.

International Women’s Day on 8 March 2020 had as its theme ‘#EqualforEqual: An equal world is an enabled world’; the event also sought to answer the question “How do we forge a gender equal world?” It was under this theme that UP hosted its Women in Science Symposium.

Various ideas around the development of women, and how institutions can participate in this process, were shared by the ten academics on the symposium’s panel.

In his opening remarks, Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe emphasised how working as a collective will bring us closer to creating a gender-equal world.

“Individually, we are all responsible for our own thoughts and actions,” Prof Kupe said. “We can actively choose to challenge the stereotypes, fight bias, fight discrimination, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, each one of us can help create a gender equal world. We’re all in it together. Collective action and shared responsibility for driving a gender equal world is key. But in pushing for collective action, we must remain true to the concept of collective individualism. We are all parts of a whole. Our individual actions, conversations, behaviours and mind sets can have an impact on our larger society. Collectively, we can make change happen. Collectively, we can each help to create a gender equal world. Women’s Rights are Human Rights. Women have a critical role to play in Africa’s development.”

Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, whose research has looked at areas such as gender studies, sexualities, poverty and inequality, among other topics, shared a few thoughts on the purpose of the Women in Science Symposium.

“This conversation takes place as we celebrate Women’s Month, and certainly most recently Women’s Day in South Africa, which has had a central history in the broader history of this country.

“We remember that in 1956, over 20 000 women of all races and ages, from every corner of our country, led a march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Led by four brave women, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Sophie Williams and Lillian Ngoyi, these women delivered a petition to the then Prime Minister Strijdom’s office against the pass laws that imposed restrictions on the movement of women. We have, of course, come a long way since 1956, but there are still several challenges ahead of us, in spite of the many gains we have made. This dialogue and conversation should, in our view, not remain as an archive of this virtual platform. We want this conversation to expand to, and translate into, real and meaningful action beyond a conversation that we host for a few hours,” Prof Reddy said.

In her keynote address, Prof Madonsela spoke about the role of women in the social justice system. She said this was a first for her because as often as she has been asked to speak, it has never been about sharing a view of the social justice system as a whole. She explained that when trying to solve the issue of not having women in certain sectors of society, it is vital to understand the problem holistically.

“When we complain about problems, for example that there aren’t enough women in the workplace [we tend to localise it]. We have made a lot of progress, as Prof Kupe has just mentioned, and nobody can say to you, as a woman you can’t be [a] scientist, mathematician, engineer etc. openly, but we do see that the numbers get whittled down as women go through the value chain. Some call it unconscious bias, and I would say yes there might be unconscious bias in the workplace, but the problem lies in the entire system of society which produces human beings,” she said.

Prof Madonsela added that a variety of factors such as nutrition, access to literature, and access to education all have an impact on women’s development.

She then used the stories of historical figures such as Florence Nightingale, Charlotte Maxeke, Marie Curie, Helen Joseph and Frene Ginwala to illustrate the ways in which women can impact their society. And the even greater influence they can have if supported by their communities. These she presented as ’10 Ideas for Women in Science Moving the Needle’.

“Let’s think about Florence Nightingale in science. If she had folded her hands and said women are not even regarded as full persons under the law, they’re excluded and not helped, we wouldn’t have the nursing profession today. Florence Nightingale 'thumad' herself [sent herself out in service]. She said if there’s a problem that should be solved, I will solve it. Here we are, in the year 2020, we have a profession we know exists in every country across the world, because one woman did not define herself by how the rest of humanity was trying to contain her.”

The symposium also featured Prof Himla Soodyall, Executive Officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa; Dr Rakeshni Ramoutar-Prieschl, Head of Research Capacity Development at UP; Prof Nthabiseng Ogude, Analytical Chemist and Dean of UP’s Mameodi Campus; Dorothy Ngila, Project Specialist in the Strategy, Planning and Partnerships business unit at the National Research Foundation (NRF); Abigail Siwele, Educator; Prof Mmantsae Diale, Professor of Physics and SARChl Chair in Clean and Green Energy; Saphia Essop, International Relations student at UP; Prof Frans Viljoen, Director of the Centre for Human Rights at UP; and Dr Nthabiseng Taole, Director of UP’s Research and Innovation Department.

Watch the full symposium here.

- Author Masego Panyane

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