AIMS House of Science Manager Dr Rejoyce Gavhi-Molefe and intern Ms Karabo Makola co-organised and participated in the ground-breaking launch and workshop of the South African Women in Mathematical Sciences Association (SAWMSA). 

The launch and workshop, themed “Harnessing the Leadership and Agency of Women in the Field for the Transformation Agenda,took place at the University of South Africa’s (UNISA) Sunnyside Campus in Pretoria, from 6 to 7 June 2019. The workshop brought together about 50 participants from industry, local universities, schools, government departments, as well as neighbouring countries.

“Women are society’s strength,” said Dr Jabulani Dhlamini, chair of UNISA’s Department of Mathematics Education, in his welcoming address.

The objective of the workshop was to meet and network, exchange ideas, launch the Association, and establish a coordination network to support it. It featured six plenary talks, a panel discussion, and four interactive break-out sessions led by dynamic African STEM leaders, researchers and academics. Prof Eunice Mureithi, Head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Dar es Salaam, and Chairperson of the African Mathematical Union (AMU) Commission gave an overview of the status, challenges, and opportunities for women in mathematics on the continent. Prof Murethi highlighted the gender gap in mathematics, but also reflected on how there has been some steady progress, especially with the appointment of Prof Nouzha El Yacoubi as the first woman to be elected President of the African Mathematical Union (AMU). On that same note, Prof Irvy Gledhill, Visiting Adjunct Professor of Flow Physics in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, took the audience through the global approach to the gender gap in mathematical and natural sciences by highlighting ways of measuring and reducing the gap.  Moreover, Prof Loyiso Nongxa, Vice-president of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), delivered a talk on women advancement in mathematical and statistical sciences with special references to race and gender, highlighting the underrepresentation of women, particularly black women, in mathematics. 

“Gender imbalance persists among mathematicians. Moreover, women’s roles hinder their academic progress,” said Prof Irvy Gledhill, during her plenary talk.

During her talk on “Socio-Political-Hegemonic Constructs of Mathematical Ability in Societies, Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala, President of African Gong- The Pan African Network for the Popularization of Science & Technology and Science Communication, highlighted how the first Industrial Revolution gave rise to different social activities such as mass schooling, which eventually moved literacy from the apex of the knowledge pyramid to the bottom, to be replaced by numeracy. Emphasising that, she posed a thought-provoking question: “Why is there shame in being innumerate but no shame in being illiterate?”. Prof Jill Adler, SARChI Mathematics Education Chair at the University of the Witwatersrand, highlighted the lack of qualified mathematics educators in South African schools, and challenged participants to intervene in the schools and make a difference. 

The inspirational panel discussion themed “The so-called NEW South Africa in Research & Academia featured three dynamic women mathematicians who shared intimate details of their academic journeys, struggles, and challenges as women in the field. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala and featured Prof Eunice Mphako-Banda, Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Mathematics Department, Dr Dephney Mathebula, Lecturer at the University of Venda, and Dr Inger Fabris-Rotelli, Senior Lecturer at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Statistics. 

“The panellists really touched on real-life situations that African women in STEM encounter, mainly being that their voices are not heard. This is an indication that we must stand together as women and support each other, otherwise we will always be lead by men,”said one of the participants.

The workshop also featured an interactive mix of break-out sessions geared towards mentoring and women’s advancement in mathematical sciences by Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala, which offered practical takeaways such as mingling, eye contact, and overall conversation skills; research advancement and publication by Dr MT MaseTshaba, Lecturer at UNISA’s Department of Decision Sciences, which offered practical takeaways such as finding a niche market in academia, and establishing relationships with peers, thereby getting more collaborators; women’s advancement in mathematics/entrepreneurs and business development by Ms Mmabatho Mokiti, Founder and CEO of Mathemaniacs (maths, science, and accounting tutoring company), which offered practical takeaways such as writing compelling business plans . Dr Rejoyce Gavhi-Molefe also facilitated a break-out session on Public Engagement and Communicating Mathematics for Social Development. The session was aimed at giving participants an opportunity to engage, network, innovate, and exchange point of views on communicating mathematics to the general public.

The workshop included an inaugural meeting and official launch of SAWMSA, which was presided over by Prof Zingiswa Jojo, Associate Professor at UNISA’s College of Education. At the meeting, membership criteria, membership fees, funding and partnership opportunities; projected annual events of the association were discussed. Speaking on this official launch, Dr Gavhi-Molefe said, “through SAWMSA, we are creating an enabling environment for women in mathematics and mathematics education to engage, share, build relationships and empower each other.”

The launch and workshop was jointly organised by AIMS South Africa and UNISA’s Department of Mathematics Education, and generously supported by grants from the IMU – Commission for Developing Countries (CDC) and the National Research Foundation (NRF).