Research Nugget

Breaking the glass ceiling: Women’s publication trends in SA universities

The past two decades have seen a significant increase in the publication output of women at South African universities. From 2005 to 2020, the share of female-authored publications and participation of female academics have substantially increased. This is according to a commentary by researchers at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy hosted at Stellenbosch University. The commentary, published in 2022, was put together using data taken from the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) database which contains all publications produced by academic staff and students at South African universities that qualify for subsidy.

The analysis, which aimed to provide a more refined and update picture of the contribution of female academics to university research output in South Africa, found that, among others:

  • The contribution of female authors at SA universities to the publication of scientific articles increased from 31.1% in 2005 to 36.8 % in 2020. During this period, there was a similar increase in the share of female authors and academics of approximately five percentage points, although women’s proportional share among academics was consistently higher (by 12–14 percentage points) than their share among authors.
  • There has been an increase in the share of female authors across all the six fields of science, but female authors produced 48% of publications in the health sciences in 2020, compared to only 20% in engineering. Although the share of women authors in engineering is the lowest among the science domains, the researchers found that women in that field constitute only 20% of its research capacity.
  • The contribution of Black female authors increased more than fourfold. From only 4% of all South African-authored papers in 2005, it increased to 18% in 2020. A large shift was noted in the share of Black female authors in the agricultural sciences (32%) and engineering (32%), while the smallest increase (21%) is observed for Black female authors in the health sciences. On the other end, White female academics maintained their overall share of publication output in the sector, at around 27%.

While this analysis shows a positive trend that reflects the growing role of women in academic research and knowledge production, the researchers point out that there are still challenges that need to be addressed, especially as far as the race of female authors  is concerned -between the capacity in the university sector and research publication production, as highlighted in the lower authorship-to-staff ratios of black South African women.

Read the full commentary published in the South African Journal of Science here.