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Wednesday, 13 November 2019

UN Science and Peace Week: The role of African women in the development of the continent

Speech at the UN Science and Peace Week Inaugural Conference
Pretoria, 12 November 2019



One of the 2019 Nobel prize winners in economics, Prof Esther Duflo, wrote one of her most famous papers – or maybe just one of MY favourite ones in 2012 in the Journal of Economic literature explaining the bidirectional linkage between women empowerment and economic development. 
She defined “women empowerment” as improving the ability of women to access the constituents of development—in particular health, education, earning opportunities, rights, and political participation. In one direction, development alone can play a major role in driving down inequality between men and women; in the other direction, continuing discrimination against women can, as Sen has forcefully argued, hinder development. Empowerment can, in other words, accelerate development.

Policymakers and social scientists have tended to focus on one or the other of these two relationships. Those focusing on the first have argued that gender equality improves when poverty declines. Policymakers should, therefore, focus on creating the conditions for economic growth and prosperity, while seeking, of course, to maintain a level playing field for both genders, but without adopting specific strategies targeted at improving the condition of women. In contrast, many emphasize the second relationship, from empowerment to development.

The “missing women” concept is widely discussed in the literature. It indicates a shortfall in the number of women relative to the expected number of women in a region or country. It is most often measured through male-to-female sex ratios, and is theorized to be caused by sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, and inadequate healthcare and nutrition for female children.



There is however one more way of looking at this concept. How many women were born relative to how many women were educated and how many enter the labour force.  

Statistics from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. 

Population, female (% total) (2018)
World: 49.5%
Sub-Saharan Africa: 50.1%
South Africa: 50.7%

Primary education % female (2017)
World: 48.453%
Sub-Saharan Africa: 48.373%
South Africa: 48.65%

Labor force, female % total labour force (2019)
World: 39%
Sub-saharan Africa: 46.37%
South Africa: 45%

"Economic logic says to invest in and economize on the limiting factor. Many decades ago capital was the limiting factor due to technological constraints. Economic logic has not changed; what has changed is the limiting factor. Nowadays I am advocating that the limiting factor is skilled women that are actively working towards sustainable economic development". (Daly, 2012)

Policies such as the Sustainable development goals recognise the value of gender equity and equality…they recognise that women participation is important. 

Why then especially in developing countries but not only there changes are slow?

Through my work as a mentor and supervisor of young African ladies, through my engagement with colleagues at the African Science Leadership Programme, the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) and as a co-leader of the working group of women in science of the Global Young Academy of science, one of the main reasons is cultural…. And no, I am not going to touch on traditions…

I am talking more of mindset and perceptions that is supportive of the role of women in science and technology. I am worried that the full potential of women is locked behind historical misperceptions and norms. 

Examples
  • When more than one PhD candidates have told me through the years that their families worry that they wont get married because they will be sooo educated. 
  • When undergraduate female students worry that they will have to pick between having a family or having a career. 
  • When female scientists feel they are always a step behind their male counterparts because there is a stereotype that women are better in admin and teaching so the responsibility all falls on them. 
  • When the World Development Report 2012, using data for 35 countries found a clear, unsurprising pattern: at all level of incomes, women do the majority of housework and care and, correspondingly, spend less time in market work. The difference ranges from 30 percent more time spent on housework by women than men in Cambodia to six times more in Guinea, and from 70 percent more time for childcare in Sweden to ten times more in Iraq. These differences have an impact on women’s ability to participate in market work, be fully engaged in their career, etc.
All these show us that society is still skew: it opens the opportunities but raises the level of difficulty for women to take them because institutions do not change from the root. 

How much was the Primary education % female (2017) again??
World: 48.453%
Sub-Saharan Africa: 48.373%
South Africa: 48.65%

Let me tell you now how much is the ratio of female academic staff in tertiary education as a percentage to total in 2016. 

In the world 42% BUT in Sub-Saharan Africa???? 24%!!!!

Let me also tell you what the percentage of firms with a female top manager was in 2018. 
World 17.9% and in Sub- Saharan Africa 15.8%!!!!!

And at a 2018 study that looked at the c-suite of S&P500 companies, only 5% of CEOS are women. 
So programmes that will promote female inclusion are necessary but they need to be accompanied by a change in mindset and way of thinking. 

Otherwise, they will be just another tick in the list. 

The role of African women can and must play in the continent in science and technology should not be restricted to just an accumulation of knowledge and skills. These skills need to find a way to make an impact and a difference. 

As a continent, we need skilled women and women in science but we need much more is women that can and want to lead the changes in the future generations of both men and women in science and technology to create hence positive loops. 

Women in the African continent should become decision-makers in the households, in the African soil, in business, in technology, in academia, in policymaking and everywhere else towards a sustainable and peaceful future for all. 



Daly, H. (2012) . What is the limiting factor. Available at https://steadystate.org/what-is-the-limiting-factor/

Data from the World Development Indicators of the World Bank. 

Duflo, E., Women Empowerment and Economic Development. Journal of Economic Literature 2012, 50(4), 1051–1079 http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/jel.50.4.1051


Thursday, 5 September 2019

Changing the world by changing people, especially our boys



A few days ago I was invited at a Women’s day event at Future Africa, where one of the questions posed as conversation starter was to discuss which moments or events in our lives were pivotal to our career thus far.

I was making my notes and as I was going deep into a self-reflection and evaluation of my career thus far, I thought “my kids”. Now most women that became mothers will attest to the fact that having kids contributes to the need for more hours in a single day, to the juggle of many more things on your to-do list and in general, to the feeling of guilt every single minute of the day. My response, however, was less driven by everyday challenges: having kids made me realise that they are the future of this world so I have to make sure that the world they grow up into is a better version of the current one.

My aspiration for the future and in a sense a motto for my life purpose is to change the world by changing the people. Hence, all my activities, all my efforts, all my tasks have these as an underlying axiom. As an academic, I conduct research and I publish research; nowadays, I make sure I communicate my research in wider audiences, out of academia too. More people read the findings, more people’s knowledge is improved; changing the world by changing the people. Teaching and supervising activities are the definitions of changing the world by changing people. Every time, I see in class a face that lights up because they understood a concept, I feel my purpose is fulfilled. That person that is a student now might be my boys’ teacher, lecturer, boss, and a colleague or even, this person might be the politician that will make the right decisions.

But the latest events in South Africa (September 2019) have made me wonder about all these. I feel a responsibility now to the world, not only to prepare it to “receive” my kids but also, to make sure I prepare my kids to be the changing catalyst to a better world. To do so, I choose to be honest and open in my discussions with them.

By being honest, we as parents need to be also cautious that we don’t create human beings that are stressed, full of concerns, worries and fears. When they heard about the xenophobic attacks in the country, I had to explain the situation in a simple manner but making justice to the issue “There are a few people in some neighbourhoods that think that people from other countries should go back to their countries and they became violent”. And then it hit me. I am from another country; what if they are scared now that I will be asked to go back where I come from. That question has not hit me yet, but the more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes that I have to start the discussion again. I still don’t know how to explain to an adult, let alone a child, that the country of origin is a reason for violence against the person.

I heard on the radio someone arguing that we cannot really prepare our kids, specifically boys, because we cannot discuss with them issues of rape for example. I agree honesty is key but also age-appropriate language is also key. A few weeks ago #bigboy wanted to kiss #baby boy “I love my brother so much”; but as expected, #babyboy refused “I don’t want kisses now”. The argument got heated with one’s heart shattered “BUT I love him” and the other one feeling violated. Perfect opportunity for a lesson, we thought! We had a discussion with them about kissing and hugging: both people have to say YES, otherwise it’s not acceptable. So, when they asked me this week why people are sad and protesting, I explained to them that there was a lady in Cape Town and a guy wanted to “kiss” her; she didn’t want to and sadly, he was upset and killed her. “BUT mama, both people have to say YES for a kiss”….Right my boy, right….

And that is where ensuring our kids learn to behave respectfully to the “different” to their image in the mirror is crucial. Respectful not in a “protect and love the weaker” but in appreciating the strengths and not making assumptions based on stereotypes. “Mama, girls cannot play soccer,” #bigboy said one afternoon, “you and me outside” was my response. He has not said that again. The boys have seen their father, their superhero opening the chair for their mum to sit or the door of the car. My comment recently to them is they can be nice and polite to ladies, not because they are weak, but because they are precious. People tend to confuse a strong dynamic woman as the one that does not want to be loved or being treated politely and romantically. The two are not correlated in any way and based on my personal experiences and preferences, I hope the examples of their parents will mould the boys’ behaviour accordingly.

A disclaimer that I should have made much earlier: I am not saying by any means that I am a perfect mama, or the way we raise our kids is the one and only and all the others are wrong. We are trying our best based on our beliefs and ethics code. Also, there are more things in our parenting choices that this post does not touch on, such as how we deal with competitiveness, responsibility and independence for example. But all these sound excellent in theory, right? In practice, we, like every parent on earth, make mistakes E V E R Y S I N G L E day!!! And we also joke to each other that our objective is to minimize “damage” subject to our skills and knowledge of course. My personal reason for aiming at improving my parenting skills continuously is the responsibility to this and next generations to prepare the future citizens to be responsible, sensitive, rational, critical thinkers and respectful to fellow human beings and nature.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all like this already?


Monday, 27 May 2019

Us against the world …. My #heforshe

I could not have achieved the things that I have without my husband. There I said it. It is about time that we acknowledge and appreciate the men that are supportive of women empowerment and it is about time that women are comfortable enough to say that I am a human being and I need support.

Women empowerment is debated widely in the literature and in the academic circles even more. Women and particularly mothers face extreme challenges with regards to time management, unequal opportunities and lack of support from their family and their institutions. Too many things are expected from us and maybe it is us to blame in a way because we have shown that we are able. There are cultures however that are not as supportive and conducive to the new profile of a woman-academic/researcher and leader. There are women among us that have thought of or they have already quit academia due to various systemic pressures. Women with brilliant minds that decided they cannot juggle everything because most of the times they feel alone in that. Within the whole turbulence of discussions and condemnation of husbands, fathers and males in general that are constraining the women’s true potential for progress, I would like here to shout “there are exceptions that maybe confirm the rule”. I have one of those.

I met my husband (or myprince as per past blogs) when I was in my second year of my Masters and only brand new in South Africa. He had his own challenges that year but I don’t remember me ever waking up in the morning without finding an encouraging message from him. I am more productive in the quietness of the night and hence, I was studying until the early morning hours. Of course, him being a working person and training hard for Ironman, he could not follow my rhythms; he would go to bed early but never, without a supporting message to give me strength for the night sessions.

He proposed to me during the second year of my PhD. Now for those that have not been through that journey, the second year of a PhD is the hardest to me. During the first year, NOBODY asks you when you plan on finishing and you don’t mind saying “I am not sure what is my specific topic yet”. The traditional and old-fashioned society, of course, raised the doubts “she is going to have a PhD, he does not even have a degree; how will he feel?”. I was upset at those moments with the people, the society, the norms, everything. So do I need to keep myself from progressing in order to accommodate such beliefs? I was not prepared to sacrifice my dreams and happiness for anyone. But I did not need to. The positive from all these doubts is that it provided us with the opportunity to discuss in detail our views on the matter. His position made me more sure about spending my life with him: “ we are partners. If you succeed, I am proud of and happy for you. If I succeed, you are proud of and happy for me. We don’t compete against each other. It is us against the world”.


And through the years, he proved this view with his acts and not just words. He has been the audience for countless lectures’ preparations and presentations. He is my soundboard when I am confused about a research idea. He will challenge me so that I motivate and justify my thoughts better. He is the first one that will ask me “why not?” when I am insecure. Many times, he is really my manager and my promoter. He does not merely allow me to have a meaningful career; he applauds it and he would not expect anything less from me. He was the one jumping up when the email confirming my promotion arrived, or the NRF rating or actually every single time I tell him that a paper got published. He is the one that will sit and discuss with me when a paper gets rejected (sometimes pretending he is interested in what I am talking about). He has not complained once about my travels – on the contrary, he makes sure I get cute videos and photos from the kids every single day. (yes, I also get the days that I want to scream “pick up the bloody coffee mug from the window” but that’s another story).

It is the small things that count and that is something we forget to appreciate. Saying that you support your partner in all his/her decisions but in the crucial moment, when you are needed, you are absent does not mean anything. All of us need approval, need appreciation, and need support. All of us need them but even more, us women, and us women working mothers, and us women working mothers and academics. Not because we are special and not because women cannot do things without assistance (on the contrary….). It is because we value this support in a different manner and because our paths are a tiny bit more difficult as we try to develop our voice. What is the one way to receive all these? 

The first step is to provide them to our partners unconditionally because that is how relationships work. We can lead by our example and show to our partners how it can be done (at the same time, we also demonstrate to our daughters and sons how it is done). The second step (equally important) is to accept graciously such support without minimizing ourselves for doing so. We are human beings too ( WHAT???). The third step is to include our partners in our professional lives, discuss our challenges, our fears, our dreams and aspirations. Let’s make them partners in who we are in its entirety and not the one side of our personality. Finally, how about we show our appreciation openly without taking it for granted? Indeed some things are self-explanatory (if it is not my husband that will take over the kids when I am travelling then who? BUT he could have done so after fighting with me, or being upset for days after I am back, but he doesn’t.

Maybe the key is to say thank you and I love you more often than we do.

Make the “good guys” the example and the topic of the discussion.

Maybe that’s the only way to provide the right role models for future generations.

Maybe working mothers, women in science and academia, stay at home mothers, or why not maybe more people will smile more often, will succeed more often, and will be free to dream more and bigger.

PS. Homework for all of us: Watch the movie "on the basis of sex" - role models for spouses and fighters


Saturday, 12 January 2019

Looking inside to become a better mother...


This past December, I took some time off from work. Like REAL time off; I did not switch on the laptop, I did not answer to emails, I did not read papers for ten days. For those of you that know me well, you understand that this was not an easy decision but a much needed.  I needed time to clear my mind and be with my family. Within this "being with my family" need, I also had the need to spend quality time with my two boys, observe them, understand them, and know them better. As a working mother, time is limited during the routine of everyday life. Or rather let me put it better, how many of us parents have the time to reeeeeeally sit down and talk with our kids every single day of our lives? Among school, family, work and social obligations, days come and go and we talk only about practicalities. So, my idea for these holidays was to cover for all the lost time.

At the same time, I had the need to find new ways to become a better parent (don't we all do so?) and I was determined to educate myself. I registered for two parenting courses through UDemy (How to get your kids to cooperate and Alternatives to saying No, Don't, Stop without giving in) and Bob's your uncle...

When we make plans though, someone up there LOLs (when did the SMS-language disease hit me?)...

My 6 and a half-year-old bigboy "decided" this exactly is the right time of the year to challenge his poor mum...the same mum that "decided" to be an improved version of herself simultaneously... And that is where the fights started... Fellow parents, please confirm that we ALL at some point or another of our parenting career, we have wondered "What am I doing wrong?" or "Is there something wrong with him/her?" or "What changed and we lost our communication?".

Returning to the office in January, I was demotivated and confused. A discussion and a comment by one of my students though put things in perspective (thank you!). My student's dad  - a busy professional - when taking a break, he makes people around him "pray" for him to find something to do. I took a step back and reflected on my own personality characteristics which by the way, are quite similar to my son's. When I do not have my own routine, I feel as if I am out of control. My brain looks for any chance to implement order in what it perceives as chaos.

What if my son's reacting the same way? His brain is confused during holidays; if there is no routine, it will impose one. If there are no strict rules, I will invent a few of my own. For example, to avoid fights becoming worse, I would ask him to go to his room. He knew during the holiday, this rule would not be as strict as during school time. The reaction, hence, would be disrespectful and certainly testing "my" rule: "if I say NO, would she change her mind?" and the fights became worse. Until the lightbulb moment, a new rule needed to be established "every time you start becoming difficult, I will give you a hug attack" (if you have other ideas please share...). A strict rule with clear expectations helped both of us - I don't know for how long...

What did I learn from all these?
  • Before despair, observe, analyse, get all your facts right...
  • Treat the kids as if they are grown-ups. The only difference is in mastering the reactions and controlling the emotions. An adult would not growl but would be grumpy and in a bad mood for example. 
  • Our kids, most of the time, have some personality traits of ourselves. Identify them, it will help. 
  • One rule does not fit all and not at all times. My babyboy thrives if you give him options to choose and good reasonin: "Your grandfather needs help at the supermarket to pick the correct yoghurts" would have him dressed and ready in seconds to go and help, in comparison to "get dressed, you are going to the supermarket". My bigboy would not go to the supermarket, if the schedule in his mind did not include "going to the supermarket". (Guess who does not like changes....)

Self-reflection, introspection, open communication, and objective observation of the kids' behaviour and characteristics might provide more solutions than theoretical analysis.






Tuesday, 25 December 2018

The melancholy of Summer Christmas


Growing up in Greece and only leaving when I was 23, all my Christmases were “white” (well, sort of but close enough) being cold (best excuse to wear scarves and gloves and new boots), smelling of hot chocolate and kourampiedes (the most delicious cookie EVER!), and listening to carols in every corner (I would have made it romantic and talk about the cracking of the wood in the fireplace, but let’s be realistic here).

Since 2007 that I left, I have only returned in December twice – so the last decade, my Christmases have turned “blue”- like the blue skies, the blue water of the ocean (or the swimming pool), and the blue of my swimming costume. My Christmases now smell of watermelon and sunscreen lotion, sound like the coal in the braai and taste like ice cream three times a day.

There has not been one single year that someone (from Greece or the rest of Europe has not commented in one of my summer December photos in social media something like “oh how different”, “brrr we are cold here, you lucky”. Deep inside, I know what they think “…but can you feel the Christmas spirit in your swimming suit? Wouldn’t you rather be in front of a fireplace playing board games in your pyjamas and thick clothes?”.

That got me wondering.. do I miss something? That nostalgia of summer Christmas has its roots in the weather or something deeper? Coming from a family of separated parents since I was five, the feeling of something or more specifically someone missing around the Christmas table was always there: spending the day with my dad and his side of the family, I would miss my mum and her side of the family– and vice versa. In a sense, I have come to terms that this feeling would accompany my Christmases for life. Only with my move to South Africa and having my own family, I thought it would go away. When I was 3 months pregnant with my bigboy, we went on a trip at the ocean with friends during the festive season. I remember myself in tears that afternoon (maybe hormones made it a bit worse than what it was)  - I was missing my family in Greece AND my family in South Africa (back in Pretoria both Greeks and In-law families).

After all these years though, I have come to term with that trade-off too: spending Christmas in South Africa, I will miss Greece – spending Christmas in Greece, I will miss South Africa. Isn’t this the conundrum all immigrants put themselves into? We live with that every day of our lives “what if I was there today?”…

A relative told me today they are trying to be happy with what and whom they have around them and not with the ones missing. Brave and sober thought – what do you do with emotions then?
I went on a journey to define “family” inside me so that I sort out the feelings of nostalgia. My “family” are my three men. I cannot imagine Christmas (or anything else) without them. I cannot imagine myself not being there when the boys run in the morning to see if Santa Claus came in the night – or the laughs around the table – or the babyboy trying to convince us he heard Santa Claus’ laughing HO HO HO as he was flying off…. However, family are also so many people in my life that have been added through the years and their absence around the Christmas table is felt year after year.

What do I do with that feeling? Well, that is why we like traditions – by keeping traditions alive, we bring memories back – we keep them alive – we make people that are far away come closer and celebrate with them. Singing Christmas carols to all our loved ones in Greece (even through a video call) keeps the memories of knocking on door after door when we were kids singing the same carols. Passing these traditions to our kids is what we can do to keep that Christmas spirit alive and make the magic exist in our hearts for ever. We carry our traditions and our people inside us.

If not our ALL loved ones were around the same table physically today – in another country, in another city, in another neighbourhood or closer to the angels, I choose to believe they were indeed  there in spirit, because we brought them with our thoughts, love, traditions and the magic of Christmas. Because we carry them in who we are.

Everyone was there wearing their boots and scarves or their swimming costumes and sunglasses, and eating hot chestnuts or watermelon.


Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Serena Williams and the "wrong" way of supporting women



Suppose one lives in a world without social media, internet, TV, or other means of news communication not to have heard about Serena Williams, famous champion tennis player, incident and arguments at the final of the US Open last weekend. Her voice advocating that women’s discrimination materializes in all aspects of tennis and particularly in the implementation of rules and penalties given was loud and clear. In another situation, I would have sat down and cheered for her as loud as she was. But now, I was in thoughts…

We live in a world where all arguments and all difficult discussions are easily “won” by the one side if some sort of discrimination is put forward. No, I am not talking only in sports but also politics and all other facets of life.

I found myself struggling to decide if I understood deeply her agonizing “scream” for fairness or myself being a rule-follower I was upset with any breaking of rules and not acceptance of the penalty/punishment. All that in the light of women’s unfair treatment…I was troubled.
Sports teaches you character, it teaches you to play by the rules, it teaches you to know what it feels like to win and lose – it teaches you all about life. - Billie Jean KingI started playing in my mind with thoughts and examples of the brilliant book of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I read recently called “Dear Ijeawele – A feminist manifesto in fifteen suggestions”. The main message of the book was that the moment one starts to putting women above men also gets in this bad circle of gender discrimination. Equal society supports equal and fair treatment. But you do not fix something so fundamentally wrong that is embedded in the society’s DNA, such as gender biases, by creating more wrongs.

I agreed so much with the amazing author when she discussed about the Mrs/Miss differences versus only Mr on the other side (other side? Hehe). I had my own encounter with the biases that it creates. A few years ago, I went to a shop to have my watch fixed. As I was completing the forms (with my then boyfriend next to me – or where we already married? I cant remember, and maybe that’s the point), the lady-employee insisted in asking me whether I am Mrs or Miss (as if that would change the service I would receive later). My husband stills smiles now – a bit proudly – when he describes my reaction, after ignoring her a bit “for you I am Dr”. The assumption that my title had to be between Mrs and Miss is fundamentally flawed – I can be Adv., or Prof, or Dr or whatever I want to be. Also, as the book went on saying, having a description of marital status in women’s title versus men’s being Mr whether married or single is a demonstration of historical gender discrimination. But the solution would not be to create a distinction between married and unmarried men (Mr and Msr? Hehe) because that is almost as if accepting the wrong distinction of Mrs and Miss as if something acceptable and proceeding with implementing it for males as well. That is wrong – plain and simple wrong. The suggestion is to stop the historic and in some senses enforced by tradition discrimination – not to extend all the past wrongdoing to males so that we are even. Feminism does not promote revenge against males (on the contrary, feminists were burning their own bras, not the men’s underwear – ok ok I am joking).

To link now these thoughts to Serena Williams, how do I feel about it? I am not particularly proud of a fight for women’s rights in action here.  Her actions say, "men break rules, they get unpunished so when we break rules leave us unpunished". So instead of fixing the past wrongdoing, allow us women to be wrong too. Something flawed here, right? For me, everyone that breaks rules should be punished regardless of their gender. Isn’t that real equality and fair treatment?

And because I know some of you are thinking “but this rule is nonsense”…Fair enough. Then let’s challenge the rule, let’s understand its root, let’s evaluate it, let’s change it if needs be. But by breaking it who is at fault? Does breaking a racket on the ground promote good sportsmanship (definitely a problem with this word too..)? Because I did not want my kids to see that – how will I explain to them that you are not allowed to do that when you lose at school, if that goes unpunished in an important game by professional athletes? How do I explain to my kids that at sports, we do not break the rules (whether we like them or not)? In heart, I understand partially her frustration, I hear what she says about other players doing so and left unpunished – but that was not the right time to do so and definitely not the right reason not to get a penalty.