Few African women grad­u­at­ing in science

Pro­por­tion of grad­u­ates in SA lags be­hind pop­u­la­tion de­mo­graph­ics

Business Day - - IN-DEPTH - Sarah Wild

African women — the largest de­mo­graphic in the coun­try — are sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­rep­re­sented among science grad­u­ates at some of SA’s top higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions.

At the Univer­sity of Stellenbosch and the Univer­sity of Cape Town (UCT), African women — in­clud­ing those from the rest of the con­ti­nent — ac­count for 3% and 16% of science grad­u­ates, re­spec­tively, the worst out­put of this de­mo­graphic in the coun­try.

Women rep­re­sent more than half of science grad­u­ates at some his­tor­i­cally black uni­ver­si­ties. At Wal­ter Sisulu Univer­sity, three of ev­ery five science grad­u­ates is an African woman. At the Univer­sity of the Western Cape and the Cape Penin­sula Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, coloured and African women com­prise 52% and 53% of their science grad­u­ates, re­spec­tively.

There is also a lack of di­ver­sity in science academia.

This is of­ten blamed on a “leaky” pipe­line: African women leave the sci­ences be­fore they are qual­i­fied enough to be hired as aca­demics.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2013-14 Na­tional Sur­vey of Re­search and Ex­per­i­men­tal Devel­op­ment, there were about 2,100 African fe­male re­searchers in SA, ac­count­ing for 12% of the to­tal num­ber of hu­man­i­ties, social science and nat­u­ral science re­searchers. There is no break­down in­di­cat­ing how many of these re­searchers are in the science, en­gi­neer­ing or tech­nol­ogy (SET) fields.

“We are los­ing out on a tal­ent pool that can con­trib­ute by pro­vid­ing a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive and bring­ing a di­ver­sity of ideas, as we all see the world dif­fer­ently,” says Nox Makunga, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in medic­i­nal plant biotech­nol­ogy at Stellenbosch Univer­sity.

Ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and Training’s 2014 data, African women com­prise 32% of all science grad­u­ates. In 2014, about 26,000 peo­ple grad­u­ated with either a three- or four-year science de­gree. About 8,300 of those were African women.

Phethiwe Matutu, chief di­rec­tor of hu­man cap­i­tal and science pro­mo­tion at the Depart­ment of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, points out that the num­ber of African fe­male science grad­u­ates does not lag be­hind SA’s pop­u­la­tion de­mo­graph­ics by a large mar­gin.

“If you con­sider that blacks, in­clud­ing Africans, coloureds and In­di­ans, all to­gether con­sti­tute 90% of the pop­u­la­tion, then about 45% of SA’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion are black women. If you take out coloured and In­dian, then African women would be about 39%,” she says.

“But 32% is not 39%, so we are lag­ging be­hind in terms of their rep­re­sen­ta­tion…. It’s not as bad as the lev­els of hon­ours or masters or PhDs. That’s where there is a ma­jor dis­junc­ture.”

Eu­gene Cloete, vice-rec­tor for re­search, in­no­va­tion and post­grad­u­ate stud­ies at Stellenbosch Univer­sity, says he can’t think of a univer­sity that is push­ing back against trans­for­ma­tion. He ac­knowl­edges the di­ver­sity of the univer­sity’s science grad­u­ates is a prob­lem and says the univer­sity has in­sti­tuted poli­cies to at­tract and sup­port African stu­dents.

“Stellenbosch Univer­sity struc­turally had prob­lems in at­tract­ing black stu­dents in gen­eral, not only in science, and lan­guage was a big is­sue,” Cloete says. “Science is dif­fi­cult enough, and to do it in a lan­guage you don’t un­der­stand makes it im­pos­si­ble.”

In 2016, the univer­sity changed its lan­guage pol­icy so that lec­tures are con­ducted in English. The univer­sity is also plac­ing “eco­nom­i­cally vul­ner­a­ble” stu­dents in res­i­dence and has widened its feeder net­work to in­clude ad­mis­sions from pre­vi­ously dis­ad­van­taged schools.

“It is not an overnight fix, but five, six years from now, it will be dif­fer­ent,” Cloete says. “The school sys­tem is de­liv­er­ing more black women who can study science and en­gi­neer­ing.”

Prof Pi­late Moyo, deputy dean for en­gi­neer­ing and the built en­vi­ron­ment at UCT, says: “There has been a steady in­crease of fe­male stu­dents in gen­eral, now at about 30% in the un­der­grad­u­ate pro­grammes. I do not have the split of this 30% in terms of racial group­ing, but the co­hort of black and coloured stu­dents is sig­nif­i­cant.”

The Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria has the high­est num­ber of science grad­u­ates in the coun­try. In 2014, it pro­duced 2,477 — just un­der one of ev­ery 10 science grad­u­ates pro­duced that year. Of that co­hort, African women ac­counted for 20%.

“Un­for­tu­nately, black stu­dents are more likely to be dis­ad­van­taged by their school ed­u­ca­tion and, glob­ally, women are less likely to pur­sue ca­reers in maths, science, en­gi­neer­ing and tech­nol­ogy,” the univer­sity says in a state­ment.

In­sti­tu­tions with a his­tor­i­cally high pro­por­tion of African women science grad­u­ates, such as the Univer­sity of KwaZu­luNatal (UKZN) and the Cape Penin­sula Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy (CPUT), say they have high en­rol­ment.

Uni­ver­si­ties across the coun­try are un­able to meet the high de­mand for first-year places as the gov­ern­ment sub­sidy to higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions has been con­sis­tently de­clin­ing for the past decade.

A com­mon thread among uni­ver­si­ties with a high pro­por­tion of African women science grad­u­ates is role mod­els.

“In an at­tempt to di­ver­sify our own aca­demic staff pro­file, we launched the Khula pro­gramme in 2009,” says Lau­ren Kans­ley, a me­dia li­ai­son at CPUT.

“It trains tal­ented stu­dents to be­come aca­demics and ul­ti­mately re­plen­ish the age­ing aca­demic staff, while meet­ing eq­uity tar­gets.”

In 2016, Science and Tech­nol­ogy Min­is­ter Naledi Pan­dor launched Sarchi 42: a tranche of cov­eted re­search chairs set aside ex­clu­sively for women pro­fes­sors. Prior to that, four of ev­ery five re­search chairs — of which there were 153 — were oc­cu­pied by men.

At the pro­gramme’s launch, Pan­dor said it aimed to give women “the op­por­tu­nity that men have al­ways had”.

The South African Re­search Chairs Ini­tia­tive, man­aged by the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion, en­ables chairs to fo­cus on re­search and training post­grad­u­ate stu­dents.

“Coun­try­wide, there is only a hand­ful of black South African fe­male aca­demics in science,” says Cloete.

“To find black women pro­fes­sors — it’s like a nugget.”

Ac­cord­ing to the 2013-14 Na­tional Sur­vey of Re­search and Ex­per­i­men­tal Devel­op­ment, African women rep­re­sent 3% of aca­demics with a PhD — a nec­es­sary re­quire­ment for be­com­ing a pro­fes­sor.

In 2014, SA pro­duced 1,130 science doc­tor­ates. Only four uni­ver­si­ties were re­spon­si­ble for just un­der half of those: UKZN (147), UCT (136), the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria (129) and Stellenbosch Univer­sity (126).

Of these, only UKZN met the na­tional pro­por­tional av­er­age of African women, at 15%. At UCT, African and coloured women each rep­re­sented 7% of doc­tor­ates awarded, while at Stellenbosch Univer­sity, they were 4% and 3%, re­spec­tively.

Cloete says part of Stellenbosch Univer­sity’s strug­gle — ex­pe­ri­enced by ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions across the coun­try — is get­ting African women through the sys­tem.

A 2015 re­port com­mis­sioned by the Depart­ment of Science and Tech­nol­ogy looks at the “leaky pipe­line” of post­grad­u­ates. Us­ing 2001 bach­e­lor grad­u­a­tion data as their bench­mark, the Cen­tre for Re­search on Eval­u­a­tion, Science and Tech­nol­ogy found that of the 40,908 bach­e­lors grad­u­ates from all dis­ci­plines, only 897 com­pleted their doc­tor­ates by 2013.

In nat­u­ral sci­ences, the 4,116 bach­e­lors grad­u­ates of 2001 yielded 95 PhDs. In health sci­ences, 4,665 grad­u­ates re­sulted in 61 PhDs, while en­gi­neer­ing and tech­nol­ogy had 2,797 bach­e­lors grad­u­ates, with 37 ob­tain­ing doc­tor­ates.

Even though PhD num­bers are in­creas­ing — from 1,421 in 2010 to 2,258 in 2014 — the study found that the av­er­age time to com­plete an hon­ours de­gree was three years, a masters de­gree, five, and a doc­tor­ate, seven.

The re­port notes that the “pro­gres­sion and com­ple­tion rates are the low­est for African stu­dents com­pared to the other races”, and that the main rea­son cited is fi­nan­cial.

Black stu­dents of­ten have to work while study­ing and are more likely than other stu­dents to drop out due to ex­ter­nal pres­sures such as fam­ily.

Fund­ing in­sti­tu­tions have recog­nised this at a post­grad­u­ate level.

Dur­ing her 2016 de­part­men­tal bud­get vote, Pan­dor noted that the depart­ment in­vested R741m in sup­port­ing 14,500 post­grad­u­ate stu­dents, 67% of whom were black and 57% of whom were fe­male.

Pre­vi­ous tar­gets in 2014, were to have 71% of bur­saries ear­marked for black stu­dents and 55% for women by the 2016-17 fi­nan­cial year.

Makunga is an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate of women in science. She has a long list of what needs to be done to at­tract African women into science.

“Role mod­els, greater vis­i­bil­ity of sci­en­tists in the pub­lic space, pay-gap is­sues linked to science and in­dus­try ca­reers need to be ad­dressed, men­tor­ships, a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of op­por­tu­ni­ties af­forded by post­grad­u­ate stud­ies and bet­ter ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion,” she says.

“There are sev­eral fac­tors which I think con­trib­ute to this. The STEM [science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and maths] ca­reers are not seen as at­trac­tive by black women….

“Pub­lic vis­i­bil­ity, I think, is cru­cial to in­crease num­bers and to ex­plain ca­reer op­tions and what science ca­reers for black women ac­tu­ally en­tail.”

Matutu was a se­nior math­e­mat­ics lec­turer be­fore she joined the Depart­ment of Science and Tech­nol­ogy.

“What we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing right now at uni­ver­si­ties, when stu­dents are talk­ing about the de­coloni­sa­tion of their cur­ricu­lum, what they are not see­ing in front of them are African women,” she says.

“You can’t say it doesn’t mat­ter. It puts role mod­els in front of the African stu­dents, who are women,” she says.

The Depart­ment of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and Training had not re­sponded to queries at the time of pub­li­ca­tion.

AT THE UNIVER­SITY OF STELLENBOSCH AND UCT, AFRICAN WOMEN AC­COUNT FOR 3% AND 16% OF SCIENCE GRAD­U­ATES UN­FOR­TU­NATELY, BLACK STU­DENTS ARE MORE LIKELY TO BE DIS­AD­VAN­TAGED BY THEIR SCHOOL ED­U­CA­TION

/Trevor Sam­son

Root causes: Nox Makunga, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in medic­i­nal plant biotech­nol­ogy, says more role mod­els and greater pub­lic vis­i­bil­ity are needed to en­cour­age African women to study science.

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