In the Spotlight: Reflections on Gender Equity in STEM

17 Mar 2023
Header image of H3D Scientist, Candice Soares de Melo
17 Mar 2023

International Women’s Day was celebrated around the world on 8th March with calls to enhance equity for all under the campaign #EmbraceEquity.

In recognition of the lack of equitable representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, this year’s campaign sought to highlight the persistent gender gap that exists in the field, perpetuated by unequal opportunities for girls and women to succeed in science-based careers.

To mark the day we spoke to Dr. Candice Soares de Melo, Senior Investigator, H3D Centre, and asked her to share her thoughts on embracing equity in the broader field of STEM. Today, she shares insights from her experience of being a woman in science, and what can be done to bridge existing gaps to empower more girls and women in Africa to reach their full potential in a field that has the potential to change Africa’s health trajectory.

Here’s what she had to say:

As you reflect on this month’s International Women's Day celebrations, could you tell us what the hashtag #EmbraceEquity means to you?

The IWD theme this year “Embrace Equity” recognises that we do not all start at the same place, which is particularly true in South Africa and something we need to think about and value in STEM. In South Africa, women spend, on average, over two hours more per day on domestic and care activities than men. Furthermore, the gender pay gap in South Africa is significant, with women earning 0.76 for every rand earned by men. Embracing equity means providing someone with the opportunities and resources that fit their specific needs and circumstances, to reach an equal outcome. This means supporting women to achieve equal career growth and success as men, while recognizing their additional care responsibilities. Through the process of equity, we can reach equality.

Over the years, what has stood out for you in terms of the challenges facing women in STEM, and the opportunities available to them to succeed?

Males and females are equally capable of excelling in STEM. However, external factors such as gender stereotypes in career choice, unconscious bias, the level of support offered to women and social beliefs need to be changed. Women’s voices are often not heard or valued to the same extent as their male counterparts. For me personally, there is also a lack of female role models who show that success is possible without the high personal cost.

What, in your opinion, will it take for women in STEM in Africa to finally say they have achieved equity?

Progress relies on action. To achieve gender equality, we must first tackle gender inequity. We need to challenge gender stereotypes, call out discrimination and seek out inclusion. Women need to receive access to equal opportunities, be provided with mentorship and resources to create a level playing field. I think it is critically important to have females in leadership positions to create a culture that is more accepting of females in the workplace. It’s our role to help normalize female responsibilities outside of the workplace. Women need to be recognized in leadership positions because of their feminine qualities, not because they emulate masculine leadership.

What changes do we need to see, especially in health research and innovation institutions, for more women to occupy senior leadership positions?

The underrepresentation of women in leadership is not because of low confidence or inability of women to lead, it is a result of inequity and cultural stereotypes that have continued to perpetuate the misguided notion that men are better leaders. We need to have support policies and procedures in place to see the gender gap in leadership close by creating a work environment where female staff are supported to grow into leadership positions through equitable access to career opportunities, mentorship and coaching, and where women can plan and nurture their families without feeling like their choices will be a set back to their career plans or success in science.

Will achieving gender equity in leadership in this field impact the future of health in Africa? If so, could you tell us how?

Women bring a diverse skill set, viewpoints and experience to leadership. Consequently, having both men and women involved in decision-making broadens the perspectives, increases creativity and scientific innovation, which can lead to improvement in health outcomes driven by STEM, and have a positive impact on science. By continuing to push for equal representation, women and men can make STEM a more diverse and inclusive field.

Lastly, could you tell us about your work at H3D and how this has been impacted by the opportunities available for women to thrive within the institution?

I am a Senior Investigator and medicinal chemist, leading one of the malaria drug discovery programs at H3D. Self-motivation, effective time management and hard work was needed as a female scientist to overcome challenges like maintaining work-life balance, managing childcare responsibilities, and excelling in my career in science.

UCT and H3D do have resources and policies in place which assist with this, for example full salary maternity leave with an option to extend, family related leave, and mental health support. At H3D, we also have external and internal mentorship programs and a science innovation forum that provides and encourages equal opportunities to take on leadership roles and accelerate development of leadership.

In addition, the scientists at H3D are recognized for their scientific contributions rather than their availability to work after hours. This has been driven by the creation of a transformation committee to establish inclusive policies and procedures and foster a supportive, inclusive work culture that is narrowing the gender gaps in science.