Women are be­ing un­der­val­ued

CityPress - - News - SARAH WILD news@city­press.co.za

Pro­fes­sor Nox Makunga and Dr No­ma­langa Mkhize are ex­cep­tional women. They are among the 3% of black fe­male re­searchers with doc­tor­ates from higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions. They rep­re­sent South Africa’s largest de­mo­graphic group – black women – that is the least rep­re­sented in the coun­try’s higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est re­search and de­vel­op­ment sur­vey.

Amid grow­ing calls to de­colonise the coun­try’s uni­ver­sity cur­ricu­lum and trans­form its aca­demic sys­tem, the num­bers show that the de­mo­graphic of re­searchers and aca­demics is skewed to­wards white men and women.

The lat­est Na­tional Sur­vey of Re­search and Ex­per­i­men­tal De­vel­op­ment, re­leased last month, found that there were just more than 2 100 black fe­male re­searchers in the coun­try in 2013/14, ac­count­ing for 12% of the to­tal num­ber of hu­man­i­ties, so­cial science and nat­u­ral science re­searchers in the coun­try.

The sur­vey, pro­duced an­nu­ally by the Hu­man Sciences Re­search Coun­cil, is a lit­mus test of South Africa’s re­search and de­vel­op­ment out­put and re­sources, in­clud­ing its hu­man cap­i­tal. There were 18 212 re­searchers in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor in 2013/14.

White men ac­counted for the largest per­cent­age (at 28%), fol­lowed by white women (27%) and black men (18%). In­dian men and women (both at 4%), and coloured men and women (both at 3%), held sub­stan­tially lower per­cent­ages. Of all groups, the pro­por­tion of black fe­male aca­demics with a PhD was the low­est, at 23% – 494 women.

“At this point, I can’t tell you where the prob­lem is,” Phil Mjwara, depart­ment of science and tech­nol­ogy di­rec­tor­gen­eral, told City Press. “We’re still in­ves­ti­gat­ing.”

The depart­ment, through the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion (NRF), is the ma­jor fun­der of post­grad­u­ate bur­saries and re­search grants in the coun­try, and is re­spon­si­ble for the pipe­line of fu­ture re­searchers.

In her 2014 bud­get vote, Science and Tech­nol­ogy Min­is­ter Naledi Pan­dor an­nounced that the NRF would in­crease the ra­tio of black grad­u­ate stu­dents funded from 63% in 2013/14 to 71% in 2016/17, and the ra­tio of women funded from 53% to 55%.

“This is part of build­ing the pipe­line to ad­dress this chal­lenge,” Mjwara said.

The depart­ment also has other ini­tia­tives, such as the an­nual Women in Science awards, to raise the pro­file of fe­male sci­en­tists.

Last year, it an­nounced the es­tab­lish­ment of 42 re­search chairs (the SA Re­search Chairs Ini­tia­tive) – pres­ti­gious and well-funded aca­demic po­si­tions that fo­cus on re­search and post­grad­u­ate train­ing – solely for women.

Pan­dor said at the launch: “The SA Re­search Chairs Ini­tia­tive is not a de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme and ‘the 42’ are not quota ap­point­ments. The 42 re­search chairs will give women an op­por­tu­nity that men have, for far too long, felt en­ti­tled to. It takes the sys­temic bias and gen­der gate­keep­ing out of the pro­gramme.”

It does not, how­ever, ad­dress these sys­temic ob­sta­cles for other women in academia, and those felt more acutely by black women.

“The sys­tem is not de­signed to pro­duce [aca­demic] re­place­ments that are largely black and 50% women,” says Mkhize, a lec­turer in Rhodes Uni­ver­sity’s his­tory depart­ment. The South African higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is an “or­ganic” sys­tem that will con­tinue to re­pro­duce the struc­tures and bar­ri­ers that al­ready ex­ist within it, she says.

“Even while the state recog­nises this is an is­sue, it doesn’t put enough mech­a­nisms in place to ac­tively say: ‘In 15 years, this is what we want.’”

She says that a ma­jor rea­son she be­came an aca­demic was be­cause of men­tor­ing and sup­port from her for­mer head of depart­ment, Pro­fes­sor Paul May­lam.

“You have to ac­tively take an in­ter­est in black women and help them through. Of­ten, black women don’t think that it is some­thing they could go for.”

A num­ber of is­sues con­verge on black women, push­ing them out of the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem eco­nom­i­cally, bi­o­log­i­cally and so­cially.

Mkhize, who is the main bread­win­ner in her house­hold, says that the fi­nan­cial bur­den of go­ing into re­search dis­cour­ages pre­vi­ously dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents, who of­ten have to sup­port their sib­lings.

“Every sin­gle black woman I know here [at Rhodes] is usu­ally a bread­win­ner for some­body. They have been ed­u­cated so that they can work, not just for them­selves but for the rest of their fam­ily,” Mkhize says.

This fam­ily of­ten in­cludes ex­tended re­la­tions, such as cousins, nieces and neph­ews.

Women – of all races – are also of­ten forced to choose be­tween hav­ing a ca­reer and hav­ing a fam­ily, which in­volves jug­gling ma­ter­nity leave, child­care and fam­ily obli­ga­tions.

“The so­cial and moral choices that women make around par­ent­ing or rais­ing mem­bers of their own fam­ily are dif­fer­ent to the kinds of de­ci­sions that men can make,” Mkhize says. “They don’t clash with [men’s] ca­reers as much as they do with women’s.”

Makunga, a medic­i­nal plant biotech­nol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Stel­len­bosch, says that there are not many aca­demic po­si­tions avail­able and “to stay com­pet­i­tive, you have to sac­ri­fice quite a few things. It isn’t an eight-to-five job.”

But it is not enough for a black fe­male aca­demic to be good at her job. She also has to be able to with­stand and ad­dress the other pres­sures ex­erted on her.

“I work with very hard­work­ing women,” Mkhize says. “How many peo­ple are [pre­pared to do] that? Like, 10%. To say: ‘I’m go­ing to work re­ally hard, do my PhD, be a lec­turer, take care of my fam­ily …’ How many peo­ple can do that?

“You’re not say­ing: ‘We need to se­lect a broad range of black women.’ With white men, you’ve got a good gra­da­tion: you’ve got your good su­per-su­per guy, and then you’ll just have your av­er­age medi­ocre white guy … He’ll get through the sys­tem be­cause his wife does all the house­work any­way.

“It’s the same with black male aca­demics; there’s a wife at home. I’m the bread­win­ner. My hus­band thinks he’s a fem­i­nist, but clearly I’m do­ing the cook­ing.” Aside from the pres­surised job en­vi­ron­ment and fam­ily obli­ga­tions, there are so­cial stig­mas at­tached to re­search ca­reers, Makunga says.

“When I was do­ing my PhD, one of my re­ally close friends kept say­ing to me: ‘What are you do­ing? You’re putting your­self out of the mar­ket.’” He was re­fer­ring to find­ing a part­ner. “I think there may be those stereo­types … that this is not the place for black women,” she says.

“Within an aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment, guys are far more force­ful in terms of get­ting pro­moted, earn­ing bet­ter salaries.

“They don’t un­der­mine them­selves – in­stead, you of­ten find that they are ego­tis­ti­cal about their ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” she says.

Asked what in­ter­ven­tions were needed to ad­dress this in­equal­ity in higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions, both Mkhize and Makunga cite ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion.

Of the 100 pupils who started school in 2003, 49 made it to ma­tric in 2014 and only 14 qual­i­fied to go to uni­ver­sity, ac­cord­ing to re­search from Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity. Many of the pupils who drop out are black girls.

“The big­gest in­ter­ven­tion has to be a pri­mary ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion,” Makunga says.

“We are con­cen­trat­ing too much on ma­tric, and it is al­ready too late. You need to en­cour­age peo­ple from a very young age.”

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