NRF Women's Month 2022: Dr Mary-Jane Bopape

NRF Women’s Month 2022: Dr Mary-Jane Bopape

Women’s Month 2022 is celebrated under the theme of “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future” and links to the achievement of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) of Gender Equality by 2030. In celebrating Women’s Month 2022, the NRF reiterates its commitment to the support of women in the advancement of their careers, their establishment as researchers, as well as the support of research aimed at uplifting women.    

NRF-SAEON out to Improve Gender Equality in Environmental Sciences

The South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), a long-term environmental observation and research facility of the National Research Foundation, is involved in a number of programmes tipped to contribute to gender equality in academia. 

These programmes include the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR), and Women in Biodiesel – a project aiming to support the establishment of 10 women-owned or managed biodiesel enterprises in South Africa. Dr Mary-Jane Bopape, Managing Director of NRF-SAEON, explains that SARIR and Women in Biodiesel are programmes implemented in partnership with other institutions, including universities. 

Launched by the Department of Science and Innovation in 2016, SARIR is a high-level strategic programme intended to ensure the availability of the necessary infrastructure for the country’s researchers. 

“We are very excited to be hosting three of the 13 SARIR programmes within NRF-SAEON. These will indeed make it possible for NRF-SAEON to empower women researchers,” says Dr Bopape.
The Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI) is the most mature of the three SAEON-SARIR infrastructure programmes at this stage. 

There were already good numbers of women students using the SMCRI infrastructure.
“Of the 173 students (Honours to postdoctoral) that used SMCRI platforms, 75% were from designated groups with more than 60% of the students being female,” Dr Bopape says. 

“The figures for 2021/22 indicated that more than 92% of SMCRI students were from designated groups with 65% being female, showing that our trajectory of student diversity is on the right track to transform the marine science community. In terms of staff employed at SMCRI, 80% are from designated groups of which 53% are women.”

The Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON), NRF-SAEON’s second SARIR infrastructure programme, is in its initial stages of recruitment. 

“Six landscapes have been identified following rigorous engagements, landscape proposals writing and workshops, and the review process. Each of the sites will have a landscape scientist, a field technician, a biodiversity technician and a social-ecological systems technician,” says Bopape.

The South African Polar Research Institute (SAPRI), a third programme, is in its beginning stages. “We now have a coordinator from the designated groups who joined the organisation in July. We will be recruiting more administrators and scientists,” Dr Bopape says.

NRF-SAEON has completed the functionality modelling for the Women in Biodiesel project, a task it undertook. The modelling will enable 10 women-owned or managed entry biodiesel groups to collect used oil from major restaurants.

Says Dr Bopape: “The Women in Biodiesel project aims to leverage the waste stream that results from the food industry and establish decentralised black women-owned biodiesel enterprises to increase (renewable) energy access and gender transformation in South Africa.

“The NRF-SAEON team developed a spatial logistical modelling platform that allows business owners to optimise their spatial logistics by selecting focal locations for collecting used cooking oil to convert into biodiesel.

“The spatial logistical information from the Women in BioDiesel case study has been disseminated to franchise owners, and now the next stage is for the franchise owners to use the spatial logistical information to develop partnerships and offtake agreements with used cooking oil producers within their target regions.”

NRF-SAEON has achieved gender equality in terms of postgraduate student funding. It is funding 63 environmental sciences students in the current financial year, and Dr Bopape adds that “57% of them are female and of the total females, 64 % are black”.

Dr Bopape points out that the environmental sciences faced transformation and gender equality challenges common across its sister science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. 

Across the STEM institutions, it is common to find many females in the lower ranks, but they become fewer as one climbs the ladder, Dr Bopape says. “For example, of the established coastal scientists using our research platforms, only 53% are from designated groups and of these only 48% are female scientists,” she adds.

“The NRF is working hard at transforming the National System of Innovation as can be seen by the transformation in the student numbers. There is more that still needs to be done to increase the number of women in science and in leadership positions. Setting transformation targets in the Annual Performance Plans is therefore of paramount importance because it allows us to track change, and where there is no progress corrective measures need to be put in place.”

For its part, NRF-SAEON is prioritising transformation internally. More than 50% of its support staff are female. “In terms of where we are at with our current numbers, 46% of our scientists are women, which is right at the average level of South Africa according to the 2022 South Africa STI indicators report,” says Dr Bopape.

“This implies that we have a number of strong female role models within NRF-SAEON who are mentoring not only female but also male emerging researchers.”

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