Missing numbers

Since its inception in 1901, only 17 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in the fields of Physics, Chemistry or Physiology and Medicine. As for the number of black laureates in these same disciplines, it’s exactly nil.

«Males are good at seeing each other, and not very good at seeing women», Naledi Pandor, South African Minister for Science and Technology

We have all become accustomed, of late, to the complicated mechanics of apportioning guilt, rationalizing power disparities, denouncing or excusing injustices and blaming the victims. The world of science is no exception: Is gender disparity simply proof of women’s incapability to excel at hard science? Is it caused by women interiorizing gender stereotypes to the point of self-limitation? Or rather an illustration of science’s institutionalized sexism, of its incapability to accommodate what is outside the societal mainstream it stems from? And what about the small number of minorities playing a key role in science – a consequence of longstanding discrimination or the reason at this discrimination’s roots? Naledi Pandor, South African Minister for Science and Technology, doesn’t really care: «We are all very good at rhetoric», she said at a packed luncheon during the WCSJ 2017 in San Francisco, «in South Africa we decided to rather do something about it.» Not least because the Government of the young democracy – a little more than 23 years old – knows that it needs all hands on-board in order to succeed and progress: «We have always been convinced that for our nation to progress we need to develop the talent of all South Africans. We need more incentives to support and recognise women in research, as without them significant change is unlikely to take place.»

Today there are various incentive programs to improve women’s standing in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in South Africa, including fast tracks for women pursuing PhD and postdoc programs. And they work: The number of female students in higher education are up from 43 percent in 1993 to 54 percent in 2014. Over 80 percent of the students in higher education are black, and almost 60 percent are women, to give just a few examples.

But programs and incentives at senior University levels are not enough to tip the scales. Today, even though there is a gender balance in favour of women at university, there remains a research balance in favour of men. But if it’s true that «males are good at seeing each other, and not very good at seeing women», as Pandor noted, women also still lag behind because they themselves embrace pervasive gender stereotypes in families and communities. Declaring herself a great believer in the power of education to change a person’s life, she stressed the crucial role primary school has to play in illustrating the potential of change, of emancipation and hope associated with Science. Her own academic career as a linguist and an educator was largely due to the encouragement of one of her first teachers. «A lot of this relies on teachers» she said.

A lot of it also depends on the issues of representation and opportunity – and they need to be squarely and publicly addressed. The WCSJ2017 in San Francisco did just that. Not least due to Mandi Smallhorne, newly elected South African board member of the World Federation, the conference allocated plenty of room to gender disparities as well as to the difficult relationship between the global North and South in terms of science. It is a thread that the WCSJ2019 in Lausanne is certain to pick up again.


Naledi Pandor

Grace Naledi Mandisa Pandor is the Minister of Science and Technology of the Republic of South Africa a position she has held since 26 May 2014.
She has been a Member of Parliament since 1994 and a member of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress (ANC) since 2002. Naledi Pandor was born in Durban, Natal. Her grandfather was a respected teacher and reformist, her father an anti-apartheid activist and lawyer.  Pandor received most of her education in exile. She obtained a BA in History and English at the University of Botswana in 1977 before leaving for overseas where she  graduated with a MA at the University of London. Back in South Africa she was awarded a MA in Linguistics at Stellenbosch University in 1997. Before becoming the Minister of Education in 2004, Naledi Pandor was involved in educational issues in various ways. Following South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 Pandor was elected to Parliament.


  1. diana

    A lot of not yet researched behavior lies in this very well formulated half sentence: …” because they themselves embrace pervasive gender stereotypes in families and communities”… why are there more female than male mirror cells involved in this process?

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