Being a woman in science has become easier, but you still have to go the extra mile

Professor AMEENA GOGA, chief specialist scientist at the South African Medical Research Council and pediatrician by training, spoke to The Daily Vox about the importance of having women in research and science, and how surviving breast cancer changed her life.

As a researcher, the working world is predominantly male-dominated and it’s structured around male responsibilities. Finding a balance between being a woman and having maternal responsibilities while excelling in the workplace is tricky.

I think we pay less attention to the female effect at work. I think before anyone is a colleague, they’re human. Human beings go through various things in different times of their lives. Nothing is clean and pure, and completely perfect at all times.

I myself have had breast cancer twice which I’ve needed treatment for. I’ve gone through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This was very much unexpected because one thinks, “I don’t have any risk factors. I exercise, I’m a vegetarian and I’m healthy”. A sudden life experience like that is life changing and it broadens your view and understanding of the world as it is.

Some of the challenges that I’ve experienced as a woman in the science and research field is that it is very much male-dominated. This challenges several things in the workplace, including support, opportunities and recognition. It’s become easier for women over the years but one does have to go the extra mile. It’s gotten better but there’s still a long way to go.

I think it’s important to have women in science because women have a different perspective of things that are happening; they bring a different perspective to the table. They have a different level of connection with things around them, whether it’s within the community or the workplace. I think those perspectives are important, they seem to frame the reality differently. The majority of children are brought up by women, and bringing that perspective to the workplace is a more realistic dimension to it. I think mothers are the backbone of our society.

Having more women in the science and research field would result in a more holistic solution. I don’t want to say the role of men is less important. By bringing in more women, you could just have a different perspective or slight change in a particular suggestion or what might work. Men and women can contribute equally to what will work, I just think getting more women would give a holistic solution, a more grounded or realistic perspective.

I think being a woman in South Africa has taught me a lot and I’ve come a long way from where I started as a medical student and activist, to the clinical side and now the research. It’s been a rich experience. The main contributions I would like to make are within the public health sector, not just reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission but to improve the health care experience at public health facilities. We need to start thinking about more people-centred integrative approaches. People in South Africa access health care differently, such as traditional healthcare and medicine, and we need to learn to be accepting and tolerant of things that are just working, explore things we’re not sure of and look forward to new innovation.

I have a child and I’ve learnt loads from my child, more than I’ve learnt from my textbooks. I kid. Through my child, I’ve learnt to listen and accept that you can’t control everything. You can teach your child this and that, show them values but you can’t control what they do or think. Learn humility, because there are times you think you know what you’re talking about and then you hear what the kids are saying, and you’re amazed by their brilliance. Before they start being influenced by other things. They’ve taught me how to have fun too. You cannot be morose and can’t be serious all the time.

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