NRF Women's Month 2022: Pontsho Maruping

NRF Women’s Month 2022: Pontsho Maruping

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 Brings Gender Parity in Astronomy Under the Spotlight

Gender transformation in the field of South African astronomy hinges on sustainable, innovative interventions, says Pontsho Maruping, Deputy Managing Director: Operations and Business Processes, at the National Research Foundation’s South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRF-SARAO).

“I firmly believe that there is a need to find innovative ways to support female astronomers and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) throughout the progression of their careers.”

“In terms of support programmes for women, it does not seem as though starting a career in astronomy and astrophysical research is difficult,” says Maruping. “However, it is the continued support along their career trajectories that is an issue.”

Maruping finds that this shortcoming in sustained support for female astronomers impedes their progression at both postgraduate and professional levels. “For instance, you’ll find almost equal representation at undergraduate level at universities but at some point along their career paths, women seem to disappear,” she says. “There are gaps where their career growth seems not to continue in the same way and with the same velocity as it does for their male counterparts. So, you generally find that in senior positions we end up with more males than females.

“I believe at junior levels we currently see growth. But I do see that, in general, the numbers get skewed when you take a closer look at the professional level,” she says.

NRF-SARAO is advancing gender transformation through its programme of Human Capital Development (HCD). Initiated in 2005, the programme awards scholarships, grants and Fellowships for science, engineering and technical studies. The HCD transformation policy dictates that 100% of the undergraduate scholarships must be awarded to South African students with 90% of the awardees being Black (African, Coloured and Indian) and 50% being women. The HCD scholarships, grants and Fellowships are offered for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies. A total of 1 357 have been awarded to date – numbers which are set to grow ahead of the 2023 academic year.

NRF-SARAO absorbs a number of the graduates supported through its HCD programme. “NRF-SARAO has been running a graduate internship programme for years now,” says Maruping. “We take new graduates and give them three-year contracts where they work at NRF-SARAO and mentored by professionals in their fields. They are also supported in their efforts to obtain their higher degrees, whether it be Master’s or PhD. They receive a bursary and a job that pays them while they study.”

The HCD, started after the awarding of the South African portion of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in 2012, is contributing to the racial and gender transformation unfolding in South Africa’s astronomy landscape. According to Maruping, more innovative, gender-specific support programmes would help improve transformation and gender equity in this area. “We’ve issued more than a thousand bursaries through the HCD programme over recent years. Some of them are in engineering, but a large proportion are in astronomy. Unfortunately, at this stage, there are still more men in astronomy than women.”

“It augurs well for astronomy and transformation of the field that the number of astronomy Doctoral graduates has grown over the last 15 years,” says Maruping. “There were about 60 astronomers in South Africa with Doctorates 15 years ago. Now, there are more than 200 in the country, many of which are women. Some of these have become lead researchers in astronomy studies and have published papers as lead researchers.”

“I think there’s movement, but as with everything else, when it comes to diversity and transformation, the progress is slower than it should be,” she adds.

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