But still, (together) we rise


“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”- Maya Angelou

When my editor approached us about writing a post for Women’s month, I was caught off guard surprisingly. What would I speak about? It is difficult to write about topics that are close to your heart, sometimes they are triggers, sometimes they get you fired up, sometimes they make you cynical about the world. That was the dilemma I found myself in, there is so much to discuss being a woman, not just in STEM but generally in life, there are so many challenges but at the same time there are so many successes, so much inspiration and ultimately so much resilience.

In a world that is truly designed for men (I mean that in the most literal sense, check out this article by the BBC and this article in The Guardian and prepare to be SHOOK!) it may seem like a constant uphill to carve a space for women. One thing that has helped us, though is our ability to come together and to build communities and support systems. The strength that comes from women uniting for a common cause is something that is truly awe-inspiring, it reminds me of a video I once watched of Army Ants who had held onto each other tightly to form a raft to survive a flood in the Amazon jungle. I use this analogy for a number of reasons, 1) people often think ants are small and insignificant however they are pretty incredible, 2) people underestimate how smart they are and 3) they are strong in numbers, just like the women in science that I know. The world has tried to crush them, but they have prevailed, the system has tried to force them out but they have stood strong.

They continue to rise, like dust

Fire ant raft
Fine ant raft

So, the purpose of my women’s month post is to highlight my own support structure and some of the incredible global initiatives that have provided a space for women to talk, connect, vent, draw strength and reflect on the past, present and future. These organizations are doing the important work of uniting women from all walks of life and providing them with a shared safe space in order to foster much-needed conversations but make no mistake, they are not all talk!

South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS)

Although SAYAS is a platform for PhD candidates (not only women) this year was a special one because the entire team of bloggers and our editor all happen to be women! I have learnt so much from Joyful, Sesetu, Munira and Roula and I am grateful for our meme sharing, motivation and support of each other. Ladies, we have had a beautiful year together and I cannot wait to watch you all dominate your respective fields, it has been a complete privilege to share a platform with you. I look forward to hearing the future voices on here talking about the groundwork we once laid!

Black Women in Science South Africa (BWIS)

2019 has clearly been a fantastic year for me! I am also very honoured and privileged to have been selected as a 2019 BWIS Fellow. Black Women In Science (BWIS) is a registered NPC which aims to deliver capacity development interventions that target young black women scientists and researchers. Black Women In Science develops professional research and science conduct, leadership and mentorship skills for women within all scientific disciplines, in tertiary intuitions and professional environments nationally and internationally. The organisation was founded in 2015 by Ndoni Mcunu (CEO), google her, she is so incredible and there are far too many accomplishments to list!

Women in STEMI

This organization serves as a platform for telling the stories of emerging women in science. The forward was written by one of my icons in science, Prof Himla Soodyall and if this quote doesn’t make your arm hairs stand on edge then I do not know! “As I read through this collection of young women’s stories, marvelling at how their journeys through life have brought them to their current destinations, I am struck by a common theme that emerges through them. It’s a theme linked with sacrifice and passion to overcome challenges and a compelling drive to achieve one’s best, but at the same time to give back to society.” – Prof Himla Soodyall

Umsuka team Lindsay Hunter
Umsuka team – Lindsay Hunter

Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering

The Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering (SA WISE) is a dynamic association for all those who support the idea of strengthening the role of women in science and engineering in South Africa. The website contains profiles, information about funding and links to other important resources. One to keep tabs on.

Inspiring Fifty

InspiringFifty is a non-profit that aims to increase diversity in tech by making female role models in tech more visible. The organization releases an annual call for nominations of inspirational women so keep an eye on their webpage and make sure to nominate the women in your life!

One Million Women in STEM

1MWIS (1 million women in STEM) is a campaign seeking to profile a million women working in STEM disciplines to provide visible role models for the next generation of girls. There is now a significant amount of research showing that visible female role models serve to increase the number of girls pursuing STEM subjects in higher education and of those role models, real women (over celebrities, historical figures etc.) have the most influence.  To date, they have highlighted the work of over 300 women from different fields who are challenging the status quo and driving change. You can follow them on Twitter at @MillionStem

Women in Bioanthro workshop 2018
Women in Bioanthro workshop 2018

500 Women Scientists

500 Women Scientists is a grassroots organization started in America but now has a global network of local ‘pods’ to build communities and foster real change that comes. Local pods allow for a personal experience where members can meet often and in-person in order to exchange ideas. The pods focus on issues that resonate in their local communities but rooted in the larger 500 Women Scientists mission and values.

Quote this Woman+

In South Africa, less than 20% of sources quoted in the news are women and this online database of professionals seeks to change this by providing a resource for local and international journalists who are looking for comments! You can add your name to the database as an expert in your respective field.

In 2018 I was fortunate enough to publish an article through The Female Scientist (I am sure you know about this platform by now because I mention it all the time in my posts) on my experiences as a woman of colour in academia (I cannot speak to everyone’s experience- only my own) titled ‘Ebony in an Ivory Tower’ and my view on the position of women in STEM then was quite bleak. Today,  although the challenges I mention in the article are still ever-present, I am more optimistic because I have met with women, spoken to women and been comforted by women who have fought alongside me, for me at my weakest and against me at my most cynical. That is the beauty of the life raft we have created together, it keeps us afloat, but it helps us to realise that it is always darkest before the dawn.

The article I had written ended like this: “We need our voices to bellow through the ivory tower, until the vibrations of our collective pain, anguish, and ultimately hope, rattle the foundations and bring it to the ground. Because we love a science field that never loved us and instead of hiding in the shadows of this unhealthy power dynamic, we stand in the sun and demand a day when science acknowledges who we are.”

Ladies, thank you for standing in the sun with me.

The hand that rocked The Cradle of Humankind

I remember as a child I was obsessed with documentaries on Ancient Egypt, I would stare at the TV screen as though in a trance. 

Maropeng, Cradle of Humankind

For years, I spent time feeding my fascination for ancient people and culture, completely unaware of the treasure trove of evolutionary history 20 minutes away from my childhood home. I – now a paleoanthropologist- was completely unaware of the treasure of The Cradle of Humankind. The Cradle of Humankind plays a pivotal role in our understanding of our evolution as a species and I had never been there, not even once until I began my postgraduate degree in this remarkable field. This may seem like an odd confession but the more I read about it the more I realise that my experience (or lack thereof) was not unique.

Recently, a PhD candidate from the University of Edinburgh, Elsa Panciroli wrote an article for The Guardian on the image problem in palaeontology where she highlighted the barriers to diversity and the stereotypes that drive them. If ever you have watched “Jurassic Park”, “Indiana Jones” or even “The Mummy” you would notice that most of the heroes/scientists in these film share one commonality- they are all white males. This image has dominated the science since the early days with many women and people of colour actively excluded from the mainstream narrative.

jurassic world4
Do you see any similarities?

Could it be that I did not know about palaeontology because I was never actually the targeted candidate, groomed to become one? Could it be a systemic problem that has resulted in a lack of representation, specifically of African researchers? This, in a field that prides itself on our fossil record but too often, disregards the potential of African academics.

We often hear the term “representation matters”, it has even become a popular hashtag on Twitter but it is so much more than just a social media slogan, it is a mindset that should be adapted in every industry. As a young woman of colour in the field of palaeosciences, it was (and still is) important for me to see people like me in this space, and not only in the space but in senior positions.

In 2017, Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane became the curator of Plio-Pleistocene palaeontology at the Ditsong Museums of South Africa (she was also the first Black woman in South Africa to graduate with a Doctorate in palaeoanthropology) and for the very first time, I felt like I belonged. Dr Tawane is a phenomenal researcher and mentor, alongside other trailblazers such as Dr Dipuo Kgotleng and Dr Nonhlanhla Vilakazi of the University of Johannesburg. It still amazes me that in 2019 we are still seeing “firsts” as in “the first Black woman to achieve x.y,z”. But how do we change this? And indeed many will ask, is it even important that we do?

Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane, from the Ditsong Museums of South Africa

The answer to the latter is a resounding YES, it is important that we actively strive to change the perception of palaeosciences (and STEM careers in general) so that we introduce diverse narratives to an otherwise monotonous story. It is important because there are many South African schoolchildren who enjoy evolution and cherish their experiences at places like The Cradle of Humankind but who will never know that we need them to keep that spark alive and join us in academia.

The answer to the former question is a lot more complicated, how do you change a system? I do not have the answers to that, in my naivety I hope to change the world but practically this has to be a team effort and this team includes the demographic palaeontology was originally catered for, senior white men. Dr Kathleen Grogan so eloquently stated this idea in her recent Nature Ecology & Evolution article discussing gender bias in the workplace when she said, “Water can’t fix the leaks in the pipeline.”

leakey pipeline
The leaky pipeline of women in STEM

In order to address racial inequality and a lack of diversity in any field, we require an open, honest and uncomfortable conversation with all those who love science. We also need to actively ensure exposure to these fields in primary school, keeping that interest alive well into tertiary education. This means scrutinizing our outreach efforts as researchers in the field, policy makers and educators.

Often, calls for change are misinterpreted as disdain for a system, actually, it is a way of showing you care enough to know it can be better. I criticize my science because I love it, because I believe in its ability to unite people but I truly believe that we need the study of evolution, to actually evolve. How many women, how many Africans and how many people of colour with unique perspectives and a love for the science have we already allowed to seep through the cracks of a dated pipeline? I know I am not willing to lose another, not even one drop.