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It Takes a Nation to Bring Women into Science and Technology, Malcom Says
Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, told South African leaders that a systematic effort would be the most effective way to bring women into the fields of science, technology and engineering.
Speaking at the South African government's Women in Science and Technology awards banquet this month, Malcom praised the nation's "substantial" science and technology capacity and its "excellent and accomplished" scientists and engineers. But she urged that the nation develop "broad-based partnerships" to nurture the aspirations of young peopleof both gendersto enter the fields.
"As far as bringing women to science and technology and science and technology to women," Malcom said, "we must all own some part of these challenges and accept our role in addressing them."
Malcom joined South African Science and Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena and others in speaking at the second annual Women in Science and Technology awards gala on 6 August in suburban Johannesburg.
According to the South African government's BuaNews service, Mangena told the winners that they would inspire other women to "transcend the glass ceiling often imposed on women by society.
"Work hard to explode existing myths and stereotypes," he added, "and persevere to change society's attitudes about girls and women in science and technology, and in society. Spread your knowledge, wisdom and skills widely so that in time all the women of South Africa may be free of the multiplicity of burdens plaguing them."
Malcom had been invited to represented the South African Reference Group on Women in Science and Technology, which seeks to bring the gender-equality perspective into the nation's everyday policy-making.
Gender equality is a fundamental tenet of the Bill of Rights in South Africa's constitution. In a statement of its purpose, the Reference Group says: "Access to science and technology for women is necessary to transfer patterns of productivity, contribute to job creation and new ways of working and in promoting the establishment of a knowledge-based society resulting in wealth creation. Access by women to science and technology also has the potential to positively contribute to improving the quality of life of women and their households."
Malcom is widely seen as a leader in global efforts to improve science and engineering education and diversity in those fields. Under her guidance, Education and Human Resources at AAAS has become a global resource for those seeking to improve science education and diversity. In 2003, Malcom received the Public Welfare Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, the highest award given by the Academy.
In her speech before South African scientists and science policy leaders, Malcom said that science and technology are essential both for meeting peoples' basic needs and building a democratic nation. Bringing women and other underrepresented groups into the fields not only helps reduce inequality and build the economy, she said, but ensures that their perspectives will help expand the S & T knowledge base.
"Most countries, even those with advanced science and technology capacities, have not yet adequately utilized the full range of talents of their people, thus limiting their own access to a highly skilled and motivated workforce," Malcom said. "In my own country of the United States, we have not fully incorporated the talents of women, of black and Hispanic Americans, of our indigenous Native American populations, or of persons with disabilities. And we also continue to work on addressing these issues."
But for South Africa and other countries, it is a complex challenge, she said. Meeting the challenge requires equal access to education; hands-on, inquiry based modes of science instruction; well-trained teachers; and supportive curricular materials. The entire culturefrom families to elementary education to higher education and industry-must be informed and committed to the goal.
"If we are to construct a system that supports young people's aspiration to science and engineering and that nurtures the potential of all currently in these fields," she said, "there is the need to be able to achieve these ends because of the system, not in spite of it.
"Whoever has primary responsibility for the issuewhether education, teacher development, skills training or business developmentneeds to accept the leadership for the gender concerns" that the entire society is trying to address.
In his speech, Minister Mangena told the audience that women are often discouraged from entering the science, engineering and technology fields by stubborn cultural values and stereotypes and a lack of women role models.
"The old prejudices and stereotypes that female scientists must be dull, dowdy and unattractive must be eradicated. Young girls should be made aware that aspiring to a scientific career should not entail a compromise in appearance or family life," he said. "It is perfectly possible for a good scientist to be a stylish career woman as well as a good mother. It is not appearance that counts, but competence."
Edward W. Lempinen
24 August 2004