Women in science: some progress, but challenges remain

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne
Freelance journalist working in Cape Town


Women researchers have long explored the frontiers of knowledge, and have in the process made major contributions towards meeting health and development challenges, according to the moderator of a panel discussion at Forum 2012 on the role of women in science in the developing world.

Yet Jill Farrant, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, and an expert on resurrection plants – plants that can ‘come back to life’ from a desiccated state when rehydrated – pointed out that women have not necessarily received recognition for their achievements.

Jill Farrant: women scientists are often not acknowledged (Credit: UNESCO/L'Oreal Foundation)

For example, said Farrant, one of the 2012 winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science, only 16 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women, compared to more than 500 men.

Nashima  Badsha, an advisor to the South African Minister of Science and Technology, said that gender equality was protected by the country’s constitution, and that, especially in higher education, the statistics were encouraging. Women made up most enrolments and graduates in universities, and at PhD level, the number of women was fast approaching that of men.

But these figures masked less encouraging details. For example, women still only accounted for a third of publishing scientists in South Africa, while black women were under-represented in science, and the overall employment of women in higher education was under 18% – below that in other BRICS countries.

In Brazil, according to Claude Pirmez, vice president for research at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, the number of women holding PhDs was growing strongly. But the highest positions in science were still dominated by men – the Brazilian Academy of Science, for example, remained 90% male.

Javie Ssozi, a digital media consultant from Uganda, described how information and communication technologies were giving women access to opportunities and information sharing. For example, rural women farmers could be given information about new agricultural skills or ways to deal with climate change.

But he added that policies were often not gender sensitive, and that projects could be influenced by cultural issues. For example, men often tried to decide when and how women used their mobile phones.

Finally, for Devaki Nambiar, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Public Health Foundation of India, a key issue was the personal safety of women in society. “If you can’t leave your home in safety, how can you make progress in science and technology?” she asked.

But noticeably, all but one member of the discussion panel were females, and they spoke in front of an audience consisting mainly of women.  Perhaps a case of preaching to the converted?

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

Lia Labuschagne

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