#WomenofUP: ‘It is time to establish systemic changes that alleviate conflicting expectations for women, so that we can redefine what it means to be a leader’

Posted on August 19, 2021

“Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a scientist and understand the mechanisms and building blocks of the natural world,” says Dr Rakeshnie Ramoutar-Prieschl, Head: Research and Development at University of Pretoria (UP). “I have always been intrigued and fascinated by how science affects almost every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the technology we use.”

Dr Ramoutar-Prieschl started her undergraduate studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and was inspired by the solid foundation given to her by the late Professor Patricia Berjak, who was her supervisor, mentor and role model. Prof Berjak instilled in her students the desire for the pursuit of excellence, and this value, to this day, continues to motivate Dr Ramoutar-Prieschl. Her academic journey continued at the University of Stellenbosch, Wits Business School and North-West University, together with an illustrious career including an eleven-year tenure as director at the National Research Foundation.

Despite Dr Ramoutar-Prieschl’s achievements as a scientist, her path to success has not been easy. “Women are systemically placed on an uneven playing field. Gender bias is a bigger challenge than we realise and many women, regardless of where they are on the global map, experience this difficulty to varying degrees, and this is what I have struggled with,” she said. “Many organisations hiring female employees ask them openly about marriage and further family planning, largely due to the costs associated with maternity leave and other benefits. This sets the tone from the outset and promotes exclusion, which is a major contributor towards low staff morale, reduced work effort, lowered job satisfaction, and a high staff turnover. One must understand that women are blessed with the opportunity to bring another soul into this world and this factor must not be a hindrance to their career growth and progress,” she says.

Dr Ramoutar-Prieschl adds: “The problem is quite simple, yet highly prejudiced:  If a woman chooses to take a few years off to care for children, it is extremely difficult to resume her position on the career ladder once again in a few years. Getting grants from funding agencies, government and other donors, or even being considered for a promotion are almost unachievable targets. Women with young families are measured against peers who are single, or without children, or their male counterparts who tend to have much greater flexibility.” She says that this clearly demonstrates a lack of policies that would help ensure gender parity and promote work-life balance, not just for women pursuing careers in science but for women in all areas of work in both the public and the private sectors.

“Some of the strongest forces behind persistent gender gaps are harmful social norms, biases and stereotypes that limit expectations of what women and men can or should do,” Dr Ramoutar-Prieschl continues. “These barriers discriminate against women and are deeply ingrained. For example, ambition in men is considered a sign of strength, whereas for women it is generally not perceived as a positive attribute. This often leads to us women pushing through internal and external barriers to find the confidence to voice our opinions and ideas. The stereotype that men “take charge” and women “take care” puts female leaders in a double-bind: the need to be warm and nice as well as competent and tough at the same time. This means that women in leadership roles still need to navigate these tensions and demonstrate their competency against the gendered norms of leadership.” She says that it is time to establish systemic changes that alleviate conflicting expectations for women, so that we can redefine what it means to be a leader, in a manner that increases opportunities for women at all levels, in all professions, and in all walks of life.

On a positive note, Dr Ramoutar-Prieschl says that available statistics show that the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is growing; with 54% of students who get a bachelor’s degree in science being female, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics. However, she says that women remain substantially under-represented at higher qualification levels and especially in the upper echelons. For example, black female South African professors constitute less than 17% of the total academic workforce. “What we need is to collectively mobilise and actively take strides to change the statistics, to increase the percentage of women scientists at higher levels, and make sure that women can advance without sacrificing motherhood. This calls for a multipronged approach at the individual, family and societal levels, as well as in the workplace, which includes access to mentors, role-models and the adoption of gender-sensitive policies,” she says.

Dr Ramoutar-Prieschl urges parents, family, friends, teachers and colleagues to encourage the girls and young women around them, and empower them to develop into exceptional future leaders who will reshape behaviours, mindsets and norms for an equitable post-COVID-19 society. In closing, she said she echoed the sentiments expressed in the theme for International Women’s Day 2021: #ChooseToChallenge:

“A challenged world is an alert world.

Individually, we're all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day.

We can choose to challenge and call out gender stereotypes and bias.

We can choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements.

Collectively, we can create an inclusive world.

From challenge comes change. Choose to challenge.”

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