Women still under-represented in science, engineering and technology

29 November 2004

While the proportion of women academic staff in universities and technikons increased significantly over the past decade from less than a third (30%) in 1992 to 40% in 2001, women remained under-represented within the natural sciences and engineering sectors.

This is according to an investigation into women's participation in science, engineering and technology (SET) commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology's advisory group, the South African Reference Group (Sarg) on Women in SET.

Deputy vice-chancellor Professor Cheryl de la Rey presented the findings of the report titled Facing the Facts: Women's Participation in Science, Engineering and Technology, at a launch function on November 8.

The study utilised data sources from across the spectrum of the public science system and, in addition to benchmarking the status of women's participation in public sector SET, it served to inform planners and policy makers within government, higher education and SET institutions.

As South Africa's future SET workforce will be drawn from the current stock of students, the study examined the number of women enrolling and graduating.

Findings show that although women form the majority of enrolments, the more advanced the level of study, the fewer the number of women students, graduates and women of colour.

Within the university sector in 2001, women were in the majority in enrolments at the undergraduate and lower postgraduate levels, and in the minority at the upper postgraduate (master's and doctoral) level. Only 42% of upper postgraduate enrolments were women.

The study found that while the bulk of academic staff at universities and technikons is located in the social sciences and humanities, this skewed distribution was even more pronounced among women: 61% of women instruction staff were in the social sciences and humanities, compared to 50% of male staff. This pattern was inverted for the natural sciences and engineering, with 38% men and 21% women instruction staff.

Despite marked improvements after 1992, there remained relatively few women in the senior ranks within the higher education sector. Within the university sector, in 2001 only 7% of women academics were professors, compared to 26% of the men staff.

When it came to publication outputs, the study showed that while more than two-fifths of the professional staff in the higher education and science council sectors are women, less than one third (29%) of all active publishing scientists on the SA Knowledgebase are women.

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