NRF advancing women in science

NRF advancing women in science

Fast-tracking gender transformation and equity in academia is one of the grand mandates of the National Research Foundation (NRF). It is in this light that, as South Africa marks Women’s Month, the NRF shares some of the milestones it has achieved in providing support for women postgraduates and researchers.

Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, CEO of the NRF, says, “Not only have we made great strides in the NRF’s gender transformation agenda, but we have also put more mechanisms in place to improve access to funding for women in research.”

“From a milestone point of view, we are now sitting at an unprecedented level when it comes to the number of women that are being funded across a number of areas.”

According to Dr Nelwamondo, Black South African women constituted half of the postgraduate students that received NRF funding in the 2021 academic year; a growth from 40% in 2016. In real terms, 7 732 South African postgraduate students were funded by the NRF. Of these, 81% were Black South Africans and 59% were women (of all races). Of the 7 732 NRF-funded postgraduate students, 2 496 were studying for their Honours, 2 874 for their Master’s, and 2 363 for their Doctorates.

Says Dr Nelwamondo, “When you look at NRF-funded doctoral students, Black students accounted for 47% of the total funded in 2016. By 2021, this number had increased to 71%. The percentage of funded women doctoral students has increased from 44% in 2016 to 51% in 2021, and further interventions are underway to achieve our target of 55%.”

“In terms of researchers and postdoctoral fellows funded in the 2021 academic year, the proportion of South African women receiving NRF funding stood at 41%, an increase from 36% in 2016. These numbers may appear low,” explains Dr Nelwamondo, “but you have to look at the entire pipeline to realise that, at Honours, Master’s and Doctoral levels, the numbers are growing steadily.”

As part of our commitment to improve transformation and gender equity in academia, the NRF has partnered with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to ensure a seamless funding process for students progressing from undergraduate to postgraduate studies. “Our objective with this collaboration is to streamline and simplify the funding process from undergraduate to doctoral level and beyond,” says Dr Nelwamondo. “The NRF pursues these types of partnerships in order to further our transformation agenda and they are critical to the sustainability of the research enterprise.”

“The NRF also pursues partnerships with the private sector to deepen equity,” says Dr Nelwamondo. “One should not underestimate the role that the private sector plays in research and development.”

The NRF has also put in place new policies designed to improve transformation and gender equity in the research environment. One such policy is the DSI-NRF Postgraduate Student Funding Policy. Says Dr Nelwamondo, “Its whole objective is to make transformation a critical part of postgraduate funding.” The policy considers citizenship, age, gender and disability as criteria for allocating postgraduate funding. Nelwamondo adds that the NRF is in the process of developing an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion document that speaks to some of the challenges relating generally to the issues of transformation. This is another important milestone in terms of advancing gender transformation.

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