On 28-30 April 2015, Africa for the first time hosted the latest in a series of the Gender Summits established in 2011 as a platform for dialogue on gender issues in science.
Gender Summit 5 Africa 2015, Quality research and innovation through equality, focused on poverty alleviation and economic empowerment through scientific research and innovation and brought together academics, policymakers, funding agencies, and civil society to engage in dialogue and come up with evidence-based and consensus-led actions. The summit was co-hosted by Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa and chaired by Professor Olive Shisana, its Chief Executive Officer. She hopes that the summit will result in development of gender policy charter for scientific research, which will guide science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) researchers to take into account the needs of women and men, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming persons.
The co-founder of Gender Summit, Dr Elizabeth Pollitzer, believes that the societal gender attitudes systematically undervalue women’s capabilities and needs and this is reflected in science culture, where ‘women traditionally have been underrepresented as researchers, as subjects of research, and as beneficiaries of research and innovation.’ The purpose of Gender Summits is to change these cultures by examining the research evidence, demonstrating the benefits of gender aware and responsive science and reaching consensus on the actions needed and who should take them.
Naledi Pandor, the Minister of Science and Technology in South Africa, welcomed the Gender Summit in her keynote speech, specifically in light of recent efforts to promote women in science in South Africa. Examples include the Thuthuka bursary programme, the South African Chemical Institute (SACI) research programme, the establishment of centres of excellence, e.g. food security, nutrition, sustainable agriculture, though she admitted that out of 16 centres, only one is led by a woman and despite all successes a lot still remains to be done.
The Minister’s speech was followed by an insightful presentation from Professor Peter Piot, Director and Professor of Global Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He revealed that 60% of all HIV infected are women, partly because of biological vulnerability, but also due to the position of women in a society. Poverty and violence affecting women in greater numbers are specifically related to HIV and it is necessary to consider any research into this condition from gender perspective. Gender was a major factor to take into account in the recent Ebola outbreak due to similar gender differences, such as women often being the caregivers for the infected, running funerals of those who died from Ebola, engaging in trade, etc. Gender is therefore important in the spread and impact of the Ebola virus, thus health programmes and disease interventions need to take it into account.
Many examples of good practice were shared at the summit, including those supporting women in STEM through mentoring or leadership and management development programmes, including the ACU’s own Gender Programme focusing on women leadership development in academia.
Dr Orlando Taylor, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Research at Fielding Graduate University, introduced some of the experiences from the United States. In 2012, the Chicago School of Professional Phycology introduced the Opportunities for Underrepresented Scholars (OURS) programme which is offered to women STEM faculty and emerging leaders from historically black colleges and universities; it provides postgraduate certificates in academic leadership.
Leadership development and mentoring are also part of Howard University’s Women in STEM empowerment programme. In this case the trainings are combined with strong institutional strategies, media campaigns, and education to foster inclusive culture. Currently the only woman in her department, Professor Sonia Smith, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, knows too well about challenges in increasing inclusion of women faculty, and specifically women of colour.
There were numerous other inspirational projects and thought provoking research findings presented at the summit, but what is it that can be done to make the necessary changes?
Looking ahead, the summit concluded that an effective way forward is to build on commitment of leaders, create platforms for sharing stories and experiences, as well as tap into existing and inform future policy agendas. It is necessary to demonstrate benefits of gender sensitive research, development, and innovation (R&D&I), link to important ongoing initiatives and develop strategies and programmes for mainstreaming gender into policy.
Focus on education as a tool
One of the recommendations that came out from the summit suggested that institutions, grant makers, and scientists must commit to education as a tool to make progress towards gender equality, for example, through hosting and providing training seminars, workshops and discussions, and sharing these resources with scientific and lay community as widely as possible. There was a call to train more African women in the fields of science, technology, and innovation.
Psychological and cultural change
Institutional transformation in the culture of universities and research organisations to support women researchers is an obvious necessity. For example, organisations that fund research should assemble gender balanced review and selection committees for evaluation of proposals. Scientific research should be gender sensitive as gender bias results in poor science, for example production of medicines not suitable for women or pregnant women as a result of gender blind clinical and pre-clinical research.
Advancing scientific diversity and inclusion will mitigate the effects of gender and cognitive bias in science knowledge and practice. It is also expected that increasing the number of women in science will contribute to the improvement of the quality of lives.
The concluding message from the summit was that science and technology contributes to economic development, but this growth is not continuous, hence it has moved to creative gendered innovation to increase economic growth and to improve knowledge capital and new market.