#WomenofUP: UP hosts third annual Women in Science Symposium

Posted on August 30, 2021

“Women have been at the front line of the COVID-19 crisis, as healthcare workers, caregivers, innovators, community organisers and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic,” said Dr Sithembile Mbete, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP), during the institution’s third annual Women in Science Symposium. “The crisis has highlighted both the centrality of their contributions and the disproportionate burdens that women carry.”

The event, themed ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World’, celebrated the tremendous efforts by women and girls in shaping a more equitable future and recovery from the global pandemic.

Various ideas around how women play a role in challenging stereotypes, biases and social norms were shared by the academics on the symposium’s panel, as were thoughts on providing women and girls with equal access to education, healthcare, decent work and representation in political and economic decision-making processes.

“Women leaders and women’s organisations have demonstrated their skills, knowledge and networks to effectively lead in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts,” Dr Mbete added. “There is greater recognition than ever before that women’s experiences, perspectives and skills must have a place at the decision-making table to enable decision-making that makes the world work better for all.”

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe shared how women have responded to the pandemic, and the impact that they have had.

“We must not only survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but emerge renewed, with women as a powerful voice at the centre of the recovery,” he said. “Many women entrepreneurs have responded to the incredible challenge with both grit and innovation, pivoting rapidly to cope with the impact of the crisis and helping to create better futures.”

The symposium’s keynote speaker – Professor Sehliselo Ndlovu of the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Witwatersrand – is no stranger to breaking barriers and actively transforming the discipline she works in, and delivered a powerful message to future female leaders.

“The world is changing rapidly, and a future female leader needs to be adaptable to changes,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fact that women still face a lot of imbalances and responsibilities. Future female leaders need to be proactive rather than reactive to changes. That way, they are able to stay ahead of the game and remain relevant in a changing world.”

The symposium shifted its focus to the lived experiences of women working and thriving in their respective fields. Professor Namrita Lall of UP’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences spoke about her experience of working in a male-dominated space.

“One way to overcome the barriers for women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] is to redefine role models,” she shared. “Redefining ‘what a scientist looks like’ and addressing the lack of female role models could encourage young girls and women to pursue careers in the STEM fields. Young women need access to information about all types of STEM possibilities and the women who have succeeded in those careers. The media often does not cover such women; as a result, women’s career trajectories are less visible. We need to tell these stories, so we aren’t continually ‘rediscovering’ this gap.”

Following this, Lerato Ndlovu, President of UP’s Student Representative Council (SRC), spoke about promoting choice and inclusion, and of the participation of women at schools, in the post-schooling system and in the workplace.

“One of the fundamental reasons we are struggling to realise the promotion of participation and inclusivity of women in the schooling system and the workplace is the lack of support of women in these places,” Ndlovu said. “In 2016, statistics showed that a shocking number of women in high managerial positions don’t finish their terms in office, and are often pushed out due to inadequate support.”

Professor Wanda Markotter, Director of the Centre for Viral Zoonoses at UP, offered insight into life as a female academic and echoed Ndlovu’s points about the challenges for women in the workplace. “Women in science face numerous challenges, such as struggling to strike a balance between work and family life, and being in a male-dominated space, which often means being underestimated by men, having to prove yourself and requiring financial support.”  

Professor Carolina Koornhof, Executive Director and Acting Vice-Principal of UP’s Department of Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Education, closed the event. “We forge ahead towards an equal future where we acknowledge and celebrate the efforts of our women who have paved the path ahead of us,” she said. “We are indeed standing on the shoulders of many female giants and pioneers.|

Watch the full symposium:

- Author Mecayla Maseka

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