March 30, 2023

Advancing African Early-Career Women in Mathematical Sciences

The lack of women’s participation and retention in academia and research in STEM remains one of the fundamental challenges across the globe, particularly in Africa, despite improvements over the past decades. In South Africa, the National Developmental Plan has set a goal that, by 2030, women and Black Africans should make up more than 50% of research and training staff. But the path towards a PhD in mathematical sciences and beyond remains challenging and many young women get lost along the way. In academia, the dropout of women is attributed to socio-cultural and institutional factors. Amid the challenges associated with women’s advancement in mathematical sciences, in particular, AIMS has committed to supporting young women pursuing mathematical sciences careers. The support includes the provision of capacity-building opportunities, funding opportunities, conducive environments, mentors and role models in partnership with African governments, universities and scientific institutions.

In light of this background, AIMS House of Science, in collaboration with African Gong and the University of the Western Cape, convened a two-day (29-30 March 2023) Women’s Advancement Forum: International Exchanges, Research & Academia (WAFIRA) capacity-building workshop. Under the theme Advancing African Women in Mathematical Sciences, the workshop aimed at foregrounding and empowering African Women as leaders and agents for the advancement of their studies and career progressions across academia, research and industry. The workshop was attended by 27 female postgraduate students in mathematical sciences.

Prof. Burtram Fielding, UWC Dean of Natural Science Faculty; Dr Ulrich Paquet, Director of AIMS South Africa; Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala, President of the African Gong; and Dr Rejoyce Gavhi-Molefe, AIMS South Africa House of Science Manager gave Introductory Remarks on the first day of the workshop. 

Prof. Fielding highlighted the challenges of the under-representation of women in leadership positions in academia and indicated his strong support for women’s advancement at UWC. He encouraged the attendees to overcome the challenges they face and aspire to become academic leaders by finding a mentor.

Dr Ulrich Paquet elaborated on the divergent levels of women’s representation in STEM across the 30 African countries, based on experience from Deep Learning Indaba’s IndabaX programme. He suggested that a critical factor that accented to the wide variation was the presence of a group of women in STEM who work tirelessly to grow a community of female researchers in their countries. For him, strong communities don’t form on their own; they need to be nurtured and taken care of by a committed group of people. Across Africa, the women who go “above and beyond” in their commitment are the “key ingredients” for strong communities. He suggested that this created a very powerful rationale for a programme such as WAFIRA.

Dr Rasekoala shared the background and evolution of WAFIRA and the benefits for the participants. She pointed out that WAFIRA started from an international collaboration between African Women in STEM and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The WAFIRA is uniquely centred on the contexts, realities, challenges, opportunities and strengths across the landscape of African Women’s indigeneity. She encouraged participants to prepare themselves physically and mentally. She went further that, participants should give themselves a gift of mindfulness and that, by the end of the workshop, they should have a clear sense of where they intended to go, what it’s going to take to get there, and the choices that would go with that.

Dr Gavhi-Molefe closed the Introductory session. She indicated that AIMS, which is funded by the Government Department of Science and Innovation, has the mandate to not only capacitate its (AIMS) students but also capacitate those in the HDI’s universities with the limited resources it has. The ultimate goal is that WAFIRA will be delivered annually around the country, particularly in HDI universities. That will boost the presence of Black African, particularly those in academia and research in mathematical sciences, in leadership positions where they remain strongly under-represented. 

Over the two days, participants were engaged in hands-on and minds-on, informative transformative, mindful and highly interactive programmes. The programmes included sessions on Intrinsic and Extrinsic enablers, Success Strategies and enhanced skills-sets for the advancement of Women’s research and career progression. The sessions were facilitated by dynamic female experts and practitioners, researchers and academics and mentors/role models. These were Prof. Nox Makungas, a Medical Plant Biotechnology expert at Stellenbosch University; Dr Zamambo Mkhize, a Lecturer at the University of Cape Town-African Gender Institute; Dr Omowunmi Isafiade, a Senior Lecturer at UWC; Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala; and Dr Rejoyce Gavhi-Molefe. Ms Limpho Makapela, a student Projects officer shared the work of the UWC Gender Equity Unit Department and highlighted the programmes that participants benefit from. 

Participants’ Feedback & Testimonials

The workshop-based feedback from the participating students pointed to more than the development of the participants’ educational outcomes. For them,  the workshop provided a great experience, useful, captivating, educational, confidence-building, relevant, insightful, engaging, informative, beneficial, fun, empowering and transformative atmosphere. Furthermore, the workshop boosted their confidence and enhanced their science communication, presentation skills and personal growth. The workshop was not only well-organised it also provided them with a sense of community and belonging, tools, and strategies to excel in research, navigate publication space, maintain a healthier work-life balance, leverage international exchange opportunities and build and sustain good relationships with supervisors and mentors. Below are testimonials from the participants, which elucidate the impact of the workshop.

“I learned to be intentional and to be committed to my own professional growth and more importantly to know the intrinsic and extrinsic enablers and to be able to differentiate, to be mindful to set clear career progression, to affirm myself in every milestone.”

“The group discussions were impactful. I learned a lot about other students’ relationships with their supervisors. A good supervisor-student relationship has a major contribution to the outcome and progression of the research”

“This workshop has enhanced my personal growth, and self-awareness and gave me a sense of community and belonging.”

“This workshop has challenged me on how to navigate through my research and career progress. It has boosted my confidence and enlightened me on how to present myself.”

“Enthusiasm and positivity is a great tool when communicating and presenting because it engages the audiences”:

“I have not been to many workshops or had much interest in them, but this workshop was of such a high calibre, it increased interest and was very inspirational, motivating and uplifting.”

“Inadequate institutional support for women in STEM is one of the key challenges, yet an important factor for transforming women in STEM. I have learnt that resilience, commitment and drive can help in overcoming external challenges such as stereotypes, family and societal views on women pursuing a career in STEM.”

“I have learnt to become more aware of myself. “It is important to have ambition, but not to become a slave” This statement really stuck with me throughout the day. I noticed that most of the groups identified the lack of self-confidence, but Dr Raseakoala provided some interesting advice in order to counteract the lack of self-confidence.”

“Mentoring is a two-way process/relationship – we should have clear objectives or goals of what I want to achieve and what I bring. Trust is an essential feature and hence must be mutual trust between me and my mentor.”

“The workshop was very mind-growing and enhancing, enabled one to push through the limits and beyond.”

“The WAFIRA capacity building workshop dealt with real issues on challenges, opportunities and strengths we women face on a daily basis. We were exposed to different financial resources that women can tackle and apply and progress. A mindset paradigm shift, networking with different women in STEM. I understand the different cultural, social ns economic values of women. I improved self affirmation and confidence. I learned the power of representation and advocacy.”

“The content of the workshop covered all the problems, obstacles and challenges women face in their STEM career progression. We were able to get ideas on how we can advance ourselves in the field as  African women. I got to understand that I am not the only woman in STEM facing challenges in pursuing my advancement in research and postgrad. It is common among women. Luckily I also learnt I can overcome these challenges and make it through.

Special thanks to Thembelihle Dlamini, Dr Isafiade and her Master’s students Apiwe Macingwane and Kessel Okinga Koumou for assisting with the Workshop logistics. 

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