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Address at conference on women in research, 23 November 2005, Minister Naledi Pandor speeches

 

Address by Naledi Pandor, MP, Minister of Education, at conference on women in research, organised by the Tertiary Education Linkages Project (TELP), Port Elizabeth

23 November 2005

Thank you for inviting me to address you today.

It is exciting to see that women academics from several of our higher education institutions have had an opportunity to participate in this programme under the auspices of the Tertiary Education Linkages Project.
 
I believe that many of you have been encouraged to write papers for presentation here, and have received support in doing so through the project.
 
In a short time we have achieved a general level of gender equality in South Africa that has only been accomplished in other countries after many decades.
 
The question for us now is this: are there conditions in South Africa that can give women an edge in research?
 
The answer is a qualified yes.
 
There is a gender balance in favour of women students in higher education; but there is not as yet a balance in favour of women in postgraduate research.
 
So we need interventions that shift institutional power dynamics in favour of developing women in research.
 
Some practical interventions are already in place: the provision of equipment grants; special conference funding; workshops in publication and writing skills; postgraduate grants and research fellowships for women, special concessions for study leave (including lecturing replacements), as well as active institutional communication about research opportunities.
 
Many of these initiatives are aimed, rightly so, at young researchers in general, but we have to make certain that there is a clear bias towards women in these programmes.
 
Many of you come from previously deprived institutions where you may not have had access to adequate library materials, research software, Internet connectivity, or research funds.
 
We do, however, have an advanced research and innovation system, and there are some programmes that allow the sharing and exchange of resources.
 
The National Advisory Council on Innovation has a committee focusing on Women in Science, Engineering and Technology; and the National Research Foundation runs a Women in Research Programme.
 
Despite these interventions, however, only one in three published scientists on our knowledgebase is a woman, and she is younger and less qualified than her male counterparts. [1]
 
Women publish fewer articles than men; between 1990 and 2001 women contributed just one fifth of the publication output in South Africa.
 
These are very serious inequalities.
 
Both local and international research has shown that even with the right policies in place, achieving real gender equality in higher education requires that we give careful attention to the more complex issues of institutional cultures or micro-politics. This is where attention needs to be directed, towards assisting women how to negotiate the micro-politics of the research environment, challenge the power dynamics, and advocate for change that will benefit women.
 
Women in research need to be encouraged, but there are barriers to productivity.
 
I have heard stories of young lecturers with high teaching loads, and under pressure to finish their doctoral studies. This is often something that affects contract researchers and contract lecturers of whom the majority are women.
 
The point here is that the higher up the academic ladder you climb the less teaching you are required to undertake and the more time you can devote to research. That is the trend. The global trend. Big names are enticed to departments by the promise of a small teaching load and the prospect of more time for research.
 
So the odds are stacked against women, which is why practical interventions are so important.
 
There are other barriers, in terms of career trajectories, as women tend to take primary responsibility for childcare and family support.
 
Until our perceptions of gender roles in South Africa shift, and men and women share domestic and childcare responsibilities, women will continue to be burdened with the majority of this work.
 
Cultural beliefs about the roles of men and women continue to influence organisations. For example, the employment of a young woman of child-bearing age often raises concern at selection committees. Will she fall pregnant and take four to six months off work?
 
These should not be the questions that we ask. We should ask: is she a good researcher? Will she contribute to our department? If she has a child, will she have a partner who shares responsibility for childcare? We have to structure our institutions and departments to deal with pregnancy. We must provide a supportive environment in which women and men can have children, and be good researchers.
 
I would like to stress the importance of encouraging an interest in research among undergraduates. Cultivating an interest in research at an earlier stage means that more young women will consider careers in research.
 
The National Research Foundation (NRF) is playing a role in encouraging research potential at undergraduate level, by offering small grants to undergraduates who have research potential and are in their third or fourth year of study, to learn about research by providing research assistance to experienced academics in their field.
 
We also have to acknowledge that women at senior level are not necessarily supportive of other women and have to be aware that a trickle down approach is not likely to work.
 
This means understanding ways in which women in senior positions can, consciously or unconsciously, be complicit in maintaining the status quo.
 
I am also not sure that we have done enough to encourage women and men in senior positions to become advocates for gender equality. There is significant evidence to show that men play a major role in the development of women academics, as women who have become well-known researchers often cite male mentors as having been important in their career development.
 
In closing, strong and committed leadership is required for a university to promote women in research. Without incentives that support and recognise women in research, significant change is unlikely to take place.
 
I wish you a challenging and successful conference.

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Written By: Administrator Account
Date Posted: 6/30/2008
Number of Views: 679

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