Prof. Azwihangwisi Mavhandu-Mudzusi addressing the Round Table on Mothers in Science


"As long as you are a woman entering any field of study and seem focused, you are challenged for being inquisitive, and hated by many. These challenges come not only from men, but also from women."


This is how Prof. Azwihangwisi Mavhandu-Mudzusi described her reality as she started her career as a young nursing science student many years ago in Limpopo.


Prof. Mavhandu-Mudzusi was addressing the Round Table on Mothers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) held at the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in Pretoria on 25 September 2018.


The round table was one of a series of events organised in conjunction with the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) as part of its Africa Science Week. It aimed to acknowledge women who are STEM professionals, and highlight the challenges that mothers face in STEM careers and academia.


Prof. Mavhandu-Mudzusi said that balancing motherhood, the academic world and household chores was difficult. However, with a good support structure at home and work, women were able to withstand the pressure.


"Do not ignore your maternal role; engage your children in everything you do. Collaborate with other scientists, link with other people on the move and help other people along the way," she said.


Echoing Prof. Mavhandu-Mudzusi's comments, Dr Thulisile Magagula, a psychiatrist at the Louis Pasteur Medical Centre in Pretoria, said that pursuing a career and having children was challenging and advised mothers to use all the support available. She said that women suffered more from depression and anxiety because of the hormonal changes they went through – the menstrual cycle, changes before and after pregnancy, and during menopause. She stressed that it was important to be aware and seek help.


Dr Khanyisile Hadebe, a postdoctoral fellow at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), said that having a family did not mean that a woman's dreams of a career were over. For her, as a mother, wife and professional, time management and communication were key ingredients to achieving success.


For the DST, including women in everything from decision-making to role sharing, is a crucial part of the draft White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, which was unveiled by Minister Kubayi-Ngubane on 10 September 2018.


According to Urszula Rust, Senior Policy Specialist at the DST, the draft White Paper, recently approved by Cabinet for public consultation, includes a focus on gender equity and women's empowerment. These are articulated through five policy ambitions, namely, equal representation of women in all institutions, especially at the higher levels, gender-sensitive research agendas, targeted support for women students, researchers and techno-entrepreneurs in STEM (including mothers), gender-sensitive monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and developing appropriate responses to biases against women.


The Executive Director for Human and Institutional Capacity Development at the National Research Foundation (NRF), Dr Romilla Maharaj, said the NRF's emerging researchers programme had made strides in supporting mothers in STEM. Dr Maharaj cited the introduction of four months of paid maternity benefits for postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students. There was also a special dispensation for mothers to complete postgraduate degrees over four years instead of three.  However, she pointed out that the institution still had a long way to go to in creating a supportive environment for women.


Wrapping up the round table, Prof. Norman Maiwashe, Senior Manager: Animal Production at the ARC, described the discussions as eye opening, saying there was a lot to consider at an executive level. "There should be a change in our thinking and the way we deal with female personnel, not only as women but as mothers," he concluded.


The Next Einstein Forum (NEF) was launched in 2013 by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, in partnership with the Robert Bosch Stiftung, an influential European foundation known for its promotion of natural and social sciences. The Forum connects science, society and policy in Africa and the rest of the world – with the goal of leveraging science for human development globally.


The NEF believes that Africa's contributions to the global scientific community are critical for global progress, and the continent's young people are at the heart of its work.  The organisation sees them as the driving force for Africa's scientific renaissance.


One of the ways in which the NEF engages young people is through its Ambassadors Programme. Keabetswe Ncube, a PhD student in Genetics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is the NEF's 2018 Ambassador for South Africa.


Ncube said that Africa Science Week was an opportunity for ambassadors to engage with young people and women on science and technology, and to highlight the numerous opportunities STEM offered.