Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: GenderInSITE

Phyllis Kalele describes how family responsibilities, a lack of mentorship, and ‘old boys’ clubs’ are some of the challenges faced by women working in science across the African continent.

GenderInSITE is a global initiative that aims to promote the role of women in science, innovation, technology and engineering (SITE). The organization works with policy-makers and researchers to ensure that women’s voices and experiences are incorporated into how SITE is used in sustainable development, to tackle issues such as climate change, inequality and environmental degradation. Here we talk to Phyllis Kalele, who is the coordinator of the GenderInSITE focal point in Africa, senior liaison officer (African Collaboration) for the Academy of Science of South Africa, and a PhD student at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Phyllis Kalele

Can you tell me about your own experiences of being a woman in science?

People are often surprised when I tell them I’m a scientist – it’s as if being a woman in science is still an anomaly, which seems crazy to me in this day and age. I remember the first scientific conference I attended, I was shocked to discover that there were only five other female scientists there. Even worse, at another conference I remember being asked to take notes because the male scientists had assumed I was the secretary and not a ‘bona fide’ meeting participant. These experiences showed me how attitudes towards women in society and lack of representation are creating this male-dominated view of science. So, when I was offered the role of Coordinator for the Africa focal point at GenderInSITE at the start of 2019, the decision was a no-brainer. I feel privileged to be part of an initiative that is working to improve gender equality and equity in science and am proud to be a role model to my daughter and other girls, so they can see that women belong in science just as much as men.

How do you think the working environment of female scientists in Africa has changed over the course of your career?

There have been pockets of improvement, but I’m sad to say that African female scientists still face a lot of the challenges that their counterparts faced many years ago. During my career I have met and worked with female scientists from all across the continent who are at different stages in their career or come from different backgrounds, and they all report the same challenges: balancing work and family responsibilities, limited networks compounded by ‘old boys’ clubs’, a lack of mentorship opportunities, and biases based on negative stereotypes. Sometimes it can feel like listening to a broken record. But, more importantly, it shows that past and current interventions are just not working or their effect is limited, and that we need new ideas and strategies to address these challenges.

How do you think gender equality in Africa compares to other regions?

Globally, gender equality in science, innovation, technology and engineering (SITE) is still a long way from being achieved. But when you take a closer look at different regions, Africa – where the representation of women in research is around 32% – lags behind other regions such as Southeast Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Central Asia. This gender inequality is particularly evident when you attend scientific meetings within the African continent because there are always more men than women in attendance.

In your experience, what have universities got right and got wrong when it comes to promoting gender equality?

There has been an obsession with ‘fixing the number’ of female academics to improve gender equality in universities. However, little attention has been paid to the fact that increasing the number of women does not automatically mean that female academics will have access to the same opportunities and experiences as their male colleagues. If universities really want to solve this problem, they need to work on changing the practices and cultures that shape their institutions. Encouragingly, many universities are becoming aware of the gendered nature of the higher education system and have started implementing various interventions to address these injustices from both an equality and equity perspective.

Can you tell me about some of the projects you are working on at GenderInSITE?

We recently put together a video highlighting the aims of the program and why it is important to empower female scientists. The video also includes a case study demonstrating how applying a ‘gender lens’ to research and innovation can help us build a more sustainable future that benefits everyone. We also recently collaborated with START, an organization based in Washington DC, to host a webinar series on ‘African Women in Science Leadership’, which brings together the diverse perspectives and voices of female scientific leaders from across Africa.

What advice would you give to women who are starting out their scientific careers?

Don’t pay attention to people who say that women cannot be great scientists. To quote Dr. Steve Maraboli, “don't limit yourself to someone else's opinion of your capabilities. Be you. Dream, plan, execute!”.

Phyllis Kalele was interviewed by Julia Deathridge, Associate Features Editor, eLife.