Invest in Women: Accelerate progress

Invest in Women: Accelerate progress

We speak to the new Group Executive: Business Advancement, Dr Thandi Mgwebi, who shares insights on her journey with science and the value of investing in women to address global challenges

Globally, just a third of scientists are women. The achievement of gender equality in science is crucial to address global challenges faced by humanity such as climate change, poverty, and an ethical approach to artificial intelligence. The complexity of challenges requires diverse, multifaceted approaches. It is, therefore, imperative for both men and women to make contributions to science. Gender equality still remains a challenge, particularly in certain disciplines and certain countries.

In South Africa, several reviews have highlighted the need for an inclusive national system of innovation (NSI) that creates economic benefits for the youth and women, and the participation of civil society. As stated in the Department of Science and Innovation’s Decadal Plan, this is imperative for the future of society.

When specifically looking at women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the gender gap remains significant despite the effort to address this challenge. Dr Thandi Mgwebi believes that the deliberate and increased application of a gender lens, specifically at policy-making level, would help to address many of the challenges experienced by women and encourage an environment for them to fast-track their progression.

Continuing in the spirit of this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD, 08 March) theme Invest in Women: Accelerate progress, Dr Mgwebi stands as an example of what investment in women can achieve. A key part of her success can be attributed to the support and investment that she received in many forms from society.

The newly appointed NRF Group Executive: Business Advancement has an impressive standing in the South African national system of innovation. Upon her appointment, NRF CEO, Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo stated, “We are excited to have such a high calibre executive join our top leadership structure.”

A life journey anchored in women and science

Dr Mgwebi’s entire life has been anchored by women, a pure coincidence that changed her perspective. She was a village girl who was raised by her grandmother; her pillar of strength. She highlights that her greatest resource was the people around her who encouraged and supported her natural curiosity, which eventually turned into a lifelong passion for science. Even though she is now in research management, she still gets goosebumps just speaking about science.

Like any other woman, her journey has not been a smooth one. She changed course after completing her postdoctoral Fellowship programme that coincided with the time she became a mother. To raise a child, she needed something a little more stable than a yearly funding arrangement. She also recalls having to attend several conferences with her daughter but acknowledges the important role of working with leaders who are able to apply a gender lens in their leadership.

It is because of challenging circumstances that most women rarely make it to the top; where their opinions and perspectives are needed the most to effect change. UN Women estimates that “At the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.”

From her time as postdoctoral Fellow to now, Dr Mgwebi has notched up some great achievements in her career. After her Fellowships, Dr Mgwebi ventured into research management, starting at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). During her time at the SAMRC, she led many successful initiatives and programmes.

“I was motivated by one thing; to build the postdoc system as a catalytic tool for career growth.  Both at SAMRC and NRF, we ensured that HCD programmes catered for women and provided mentorship opportunities,” says Dr Mgwebi.

In her previous role at the NRF, she was the founding Executive Director of the DSI-NRF South African Research Chairs (SARChI). It was under her office that the transformation of the SARChI programme was effected, and culminated in the “SARChI 42” of women-led Chairs. The SARChI Programme created 42 new chairs at research institutions throughout the country for women scientists, which at the time aimed to address the gender imbalance of the SARChI programme. This was one of the legacies of Dr Naledi Pandor, who was the Minister of the then Department of Science and Technology and who also happened to be one of Dr Mgwebi’s role models.

Dr Mgwebi also championed partnerships with many international organisations both inside and outside Africa for the national science and innovation system. She led partnerships with institutions such as Fulbright, the British Council, and the Newton Fund.

Over the last six years, before her new appointment, she served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation, and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University and at Tshwane University of Technology. She also spent some time at the University of the Western Cape.

To this day, she holds a deep desire for finding practical solutions that aim to address the countless systematic barriers that often hinder the progression of young scientists and researchers, women in particular. Dr Mgwebi firmly believes that a great leader is shown through the success of the people they lead.

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