Gender parity success for SA’s astronomy entities

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 18 Feb 2022

The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory(SARAO) are heeding the call when it comes to increasing women participation within their organisations.

Both entities of the National Research Foundation (NRF), SAAO and SARAO are key agencies involved in the country’s astronomy-related activities, including the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

Out of a staff complement of 128 people, SAAO had 58 female employees in various areas of the organisation in the last financial year, SAAO’s Dr Daniel Cunnama tells ITWeb.

Detailing the various roles female employees occupy, Cunnama indicates 12 are in science, five in technical/engineering, 21 in various support areas, six in outreach/communications, eight students and six interns.

Additionally, SAAO had 12 PhD students and six MSc students registered over the same period. Of the 12 PhD students last year, four were women. In regards to the MSc students last year, four of the six were women, he reveals.

SAAO and the National Astrophysics and Space Science programme have been actively working on promoting STEM for women for the past 20 years, and have seen great progress, according to Cunnama.

“SAAO is incredibly proud of its achievements towards gender equity and will continue to strive to promote and employ more women, particularly in science and engineering,” he says. “We feel this is a highly desirable state to enrich our organisation and employ the best possible individuals.”

SAAO’s efforts to address the gender gap in science, technology and innovation have been lauded by Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation.

According to the portfolio committee, it routinely interrogates the initiatives and targets of the Department of Science and Innovation and its entities that relate to the provision of support, and the creation and inclusivity of opportunities for black and women scientists, academics, technologists, engineers, business owners and innovators.

On this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the portfolio committee noted it learned that SAAO took intentional action to promote and strengthen the inclusion of women across all levels of employment.

At SAAO, women also constitute 33% of the management group, whereas in 2005 there were none, based on the portfolio committee’s information.

However, the committee believes it is not enough to have women only represented in the general scientific workforce. “Women should be part of the governance and management structures and forums across the spectrum of science and innovation institutions, leading and shaping the scientific agenda and discourse, hence the committee routinely monitors the constitution of the boards and executive management of science councils and entities it oversees.”

SARAO manages South Africa’s activities in the SKA radio telescope in engineering, science and construction.

Like its counterpart, SARAO says it supports the empowerment of women within all its structures.

One of its two deputy managing directors is a woman (Ponstsho Maruping), states Khulu Phasiwe, SARAO head of communication and science engagement.

Maruping is responsible for the management and operation of strategic assets, infrastructure and resources, which include commercialisation, operations, computing infrastructure, finance and human resources.

Says Phasiwe: “She [Maruping] currently chairs the South African Council for Space Affairs, and serves on the board of Mintek. She is the former chair of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United National Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.”

Other women leaders within SARAO include Dr Shirley Coetzee, senior radio frequency interruption engineer: software and data analysis; Dr Bonita Swardt, new investments and projects; Dr Marisa Geyer, operations scientist; Dr Aletha de Witt, who is an operations astronomer; Kim McAlpine, a senior software developer; and Dr Sharmila Goedhart, commissioning manager.

In addition to the NRF Succession and Replacement Planning Policy, Phasiwe indicates SARAO has a graduate programme in place, with a primary focus to contribute towards its transformation objectives by attracting bright, young graduates to work for the organisation for a fixed period of time, creating a talent pool of science and engineering graduates.

“Graduates are employed on fixed-term contracts, with a condition being that they register for a post-graduate degree for which they are given time off to complete.

“The graduate programme allows for retention of graduate trainees by absorbing them into the SARAO staff complement when they have demonstrated readiness through set criteria.”