Every year, February 11 is celebrated around the world as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Recognised by the UN with a view to respond to the need for full and equal access to – and participation in – science for women and girls, the day offers the occasion to reflect on a somewhat neglected aspect of women’s rights and empowerment.
In this light, Rights! collaborated with the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) to present a testimony about persisting challenges, discrimination, and stereotypes as well as positive impact and inspiration for women in science.
We are happy to celebrate the day with Professor Charlene WJ Africa, Medical Microbiologist at the University of the Western Cape, who kindly answered our questions.
Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your science project/work?
My name is Charlene Africa and I am a Professor in the Department of Medical Biosciences at University of the Western Cape. I lecture Medical Microbiology to third year Science and Dental students and run a postgraduate research programme in maternal infections and their impact on pregnancy outcomes.
What was the reason for your choice?
When I was 11 years old I was fascinated when I watched a scene in a movie where a doctor working in some remote part of Africa was microscopically observing an amoeba push out its pseudopodia to engulf a red blood cell and I decided then and there that I wanted to enter the world of medical microbiology.
What were/are the main challenges you faced/are facing in order to make your choice a reality?
My primary challenge was access. Way back, the Cape Technicon was a “whites only” institution and the only place in Cape Town which offered a course in Medical Laboratory Technology which would afford me the opportunity to qualify in Clinical Pathology. I then discovered that a group of pathologists had arranged to train blacks in the medical diagnostic laboratories at Somerset Hospital in collaboration with Groote Schuur Hospital and UCT Medical School. Only four learners were accepted per year from the very top students. Although I was not successful my first time around, I persevered and was accepted the following year. Lectures were delivered at UCT Medical School (some with third year medical students) and we wrote the same national examination as the Cape Tech students but in segregated venues.
Having achieved the qualifications needed to make my dream a reality, I was then faced with the challenge of being a woman in a male dominated environment which was neither supportive nor welcoming. I had to work harder than ever to break down the barriers that impeded my research progress. My research finally took off, but being a late starter, I am now considered “over the hill” at a time when I am most productive and really enjoying what I do.
What are the opportunities and benefits you see in overcoming such challenges?
The segregated training worked out well in the end because instead of just being schooled in the basic laboratory diagnostic techniques, the lectures we received at medical school gave us a better understanding of the clinical interpretation of the laboratory diagnosis. This served me well when I continued with my postgraduate studies.
Once qualified, I continued to face barriers of access to continue my studies but overcame that by applying for scholarships abroad. I managed to obtain scholarships from the British Council, United Nations, Africa Educational trust, Medical Research Council (UK) and Wellcome Trust all of which afforded me the opportunity to further my studies and work with recognised experts in my areas of interest.
Mark Twain once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter” and so, regardless of the barrier of age, I plod on, passing forward what I have learnt along the way and mentoring those who are lost and battling to find direction.
Is there one moment in your professional life that you’d like to celebrate and one moment that you’d like to forget?
I celebrate every moment of my professional life. I totally enjoy what I do. There were many moments that I found hard to forget but I survived them and surfaced stronger than before. I guess the only way to overcome such moments is not to allow others to determine your destiny and instead work harder to achieve your goals.
Have there been instances when you were discriminated at work for being a woman? If so, how did you go through that?
Absolutely. How did I get through it? I refused to be a victim. I observed what my male counterparts did, improved on it and achieved even better results, beating them at their own game!
Often gender bias is more the result of embedded cultural stereotypes than of a conscious will to discriminate. What would you say is the best practical way to address this issue?
Be the best you can be and in time, you will be recognised by those who matter. The “pull her downs” will be so focused on your gender that they will not have noticed that you have in fact passed them by. We should have less conferences aimed exclusively at women and include the men. Men hold the key to true transformation.
Unless we succeed in changing the male mind-set, women will exhaust themselves fighting for equality in the professional domain while simultaneously continuing in the domestic roles men have assigned to them and refuse to share.
What do you think is the role of science and of women and girls in science to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?
Woman in science should use their skills and experience to foster Goals 3 (Good health and Wellbeing) and 5 (Gender equality). I have chosen Women’s Health as my area of research simply because it has been neglected for so long. Too many women die daily of causes that could have been avoided. We as women should address these issues because only we can appreciate the importance thereof. Those of us in leadership should use our experience and space to make our voices heard and bring about change by reaching out and supporting other women who are struggling to climb the ladder of success.
What would your reaction be to a woman or girl in your family one day wanting to study science?
My nine-year-old niece has indicated that she would like to be a scientist and I encourage her as much as I can. I know she has what it takes and I am confident that she will achieve her goals and allow nothing to get in the way of her success.
Is there a message you’d like to send to our readers, regardless of their gender, in order to encourage support for women in science?
Many major contributions to science are due to the hard work of women, so they should be recognised and seen for the professionals that they are rather than being ignored or not taken seriously. My final word to the women : “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf !”
Meet the author
Angela Melchiorre is Academic Coordinator of Online Programmes for the Global Campus of Human Rights. She has a wealth of human rights experience in academia (among others, EIUC, University of London, University of Padua), diplomacy (EU and UN delegations in Geneva and New York), NGO work (ActionAid International) and consultancies (CEDAW, UNESCO, UNICEF).