Celebrating Women in the ASSAf Liaison Programme!

Foreword by Stanley Maphosa: International and National Liaison Manager

Since 2015, the Liaison team has experienced growth in staff numbers, reach and influence. We have seen this programme handle critical relationships with the Department of Science and Technology and all its entities, science academies in Africa and beyond, parliament, civil society and the private sector. We have also seen and increase in ASSSAf’s visibility in international frameworks like the InterAcademy Partnership and its regional networks, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU), the Pan African Parliament, BRICS and the G20. Our team of ten has seven (7) phenomenal women who have helped us take our role in science policy, science diplomacy and internationalisation of science to the next level. Below is a brief of who they are, what they do and what inspires them.

EDITH SHIKUMO: Young Scientists’ Liaison Officer and SAYAS Secretariat :

Subprogramme: Young Scientists’ Liaison 

I joined ASSAf in: June 2016 

What my job entails: The conceptualisation and coordination of young scientist activities, including the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) and growing SAYAS as a young academy and integrating and mainstreaming young scientist activities with the other sub-programmes at ASSAf.  

What I love about my job is: It is challenging but the scope to learn keeps me highly engaged. I also appreciate the opportunity to assist our brilliant young scientists to position themselves better in the science global arena. My interaction with various concepts in the STI field makes this a daily learning process.  

My fondest memory of working at ASSAf is: Too many to count, but undoubtedly engaging with experts (“science celebrities”) in various fields and sharing my ideas with them. I have had the priviledge of having lunch with Nobel laureates at the Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings and even had the opportunity to host a Noble Prize winner in South Africa.    

What do you think are the biggest challenges that affect women in the workplace? The gross lack of appreciation for some of the processes that occur naturally that do not make women less capable or inferior but just ‘women’ which are then used to hold women back from opportunities. This forces women to work harder than their male peers in order to earn recognition or due praise. As well as the multiplicity of roles they play (for those who choose to have families) and the added pressure to achieve a work-life-family balance. It is preposterous that given the strides we have made as human beings in the 21st century, patriarchy is still well and alive.  

The quote that inspires me: 3 actually… 

Keep exploring. Keep dreaming. Keep asking why. Don’t settle for what you already know. Never stop believing in the power of your ideas, your imagination, [and] your hard work to change the world. – Barack Obama 
Lean In. – Cheryl Sandberg 
Verses in the Bible

ELZARIE SWANEPOEL : Liaison Officer for Gender in STI

Subprogramme: International Liaison

I joined ASSAf in: March 2018

What my job entails: My job, in summary, is to focus on efforts on gender mainstreaming in the academy (ASSAf) and other institutions, which includes providing secretariat to the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) South African National Chapter (SA NC), as well as coordinating Gender in Science, Innovation, Technology, and Engineering (GenderInSITE) activities.

What I love about my job is: Creating opportunities for excellent minds to be heard and to meet others. Learning more about what it means to be a woman in STI, and what innovation can do to bring about solutions which can be geared towards solving problems in an inclusive manner. Meeting and working with excellent minds in the STI space.

My fondest memory of working at ASSAf is: I have not been at ASSAf very long, but admittedly, having been at an event (I was assisting with the logistics) where my dad was one of the session moderators. It was the first time I had witnessed him in his element, and enjoy working in the same space.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that affect women in the workplace? Some of the biggest challenges are often known well and voiced, and some are subtle but the extent of them is much worse. Being engaged with women and in the gender space, various challenges come to mind, lack of mentors, opportunities, pay gap, work life balance. Perhaps, one not to be kept off the list here is discrimination by colleagues, whether female or male; not enough efforts are geared towards consciousness in respect of language, and what is and is not appropriate to say to others. Comments and behaviours showing disrespect towards another are not addressed enough. For example, women choose whether or not to have children, but if one chooses not to have children, the comment of “oh you need to choose, it’s either a career or your children”, or telling a woman that “Once you make a poor decision, (like) become pregnant, or getting infected with something, you can no longer be a woman in science,” is disheartening because this should not be the reality.

The quote that inspires me: Whenever I have to think of the quote that inspires me, there are many which come to mind, but the one that will forever be my inspiration is “If she believes in herself, she will fly…” which was the slogan of the high school I attended. My dad would, and still keeps telling this quote to me with all the small milestones I achieve, like when I was appointed in this position.


Subprogramme: The whole program operations

I joined ASSAf in: 1 May 2016 as a DST/NRT Intern

What my job entails: Administration and logistics, stakeholder engagement, social media, team support and project management

What I love about my job is: Working with an amazing group of people who continuously support each other on a daily basis

My fondest memory of working at ASSAf is: Its challenging nature which cultivates one’s mental strengths, intellectual strengths and professionalism

What do you think are the biggest challenges that affect women in the workplace? Dealing with female related health complications in an environment where the clock is always ticking.

The quote that inspires me: Nothing is impossible, only the mind makes it so 

PHYLLIS KALELE: Senior Liaison Officer- African Collaborations

Subprogramme: African Collaborations

I joined ASSAf on: 2 May 2014

What my job entails: As the principal contact person at ASSAf for other African countries, I am responsible for:

  • building new and strengthening existing academy partnerships in and for Africa
  • leading academy activities in the continent with the aim of advocating for the use of evidence-based science in policy making and increasing the visibility of African scientists
  • directing support for the establishment of new national senior and young academies of science
  • Overseeing the implementation of TWAS programmes in sub-Saharan Africa.

What I love about my job is: I am a science diplomat for ASSAf and an ambassador for fellow women scientists (#WomenLeadSTEM). Every assignment has given me the opportunity to build new and meaningful friendships around the world.

My fondest memory of working at ASSAf is: They are too many to mention but I will name a few.

  • Two weeks after joining ASSAf I was asked to lead a consensus study on human sexuality, a very controversial subject by any standard. It was unnerving talking about it but in the end it was one of the most empowering projects I have worked on led by two brilliant scientists Prof. Glenda Gray and Prof. Hoosen Coovadia.
  • Directing the compilation of the book-Legends of South African Science featuring the most brilliant South African scientists. If you haven’t read that book, you will never understand the magnitude of human scientific capital that South Africa possesses.
  • Attending science diplomacy and leadership training at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC in September 2017 just after our former minister Mrs Naledi Pandor had won the 2016 AAAS science diplomacy award. I mean what better role model for science diplomacy and advocate for African scientists could one ask for!
  • Meeting Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, President of the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan during the World Science Forum 2017 held in the Dead Sea in Jordan. That aside, did you know that the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth?

What do you think are the biggest challenges that affect women in the workplace? Specifically in the science system, women tend to be regarded as administrators and not as scientists even when one’s qualifications and experience paint a different picture. Patriarchy is still very prevalent in science and an implicit obstacle for women but I have resolved to chip away at it every single day.Generally speaking, assertiveness by women in the work place is regarded as arrogance whereas assertiveness by men is regarded as confidence….. such irony!

The quote that inspires me: “I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life. I work very hard, and I play very hard. I’m grateful for life and I live it. I believe life loves the liver of it. I live it.” Dr Maya Angelou.“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” Oscar Wilde

RENATE VENIER: National Liaison Officer – Member Engagements 

Subprogramme: National Liaison

I joined ASSAf in: August 2012

What I love about my job is: Through my membership-related activities, the opportunity (and the honour) to engage with the top researchers/scientists of our country and through the Academy’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar Programme, the contact that I have with eminent scientists from abroad.

My fondest memory of working at ASSAf is: Meeting Minister Naledi Pandor in 2015.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that affect women in the workplace? In my opinion, a noticeable challenge that women face in the workplace is the work life imbalance, especially once they start a family. They find themselves in the position where they have to leave work on time to pick up their children from after-school activities, take time off when young children are ill, responsibilities that generally fall on the shoulders of the mother. Having a family should not be a hindrance for a woman’s growth and progress in the workplace but this could so easily happen.

The quote that inspires me:I strive to treat people in a way that I would like to be treated, so the quote that inspires me is one from Maya Angelou:‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’ – Maya Angelou

TEBOGO MABOTHA: National Liaison Officer (Strategic Partnerships)

Sub-programme: National Liaison

Joined ASSAf: 14 February 2018

What my job entails: Creating opportunities for collaborative partnerships with key national stakeholders

What I love about my job: Engaging with the public on science and evidence-based knowledge

My fondest memory of working at ASSAf: Organising the Innovation for Inclusive Development (IID) Seminar on Water-Energy Nexus and Green Technologies

Biggest challenges facing women in the work place: Wage gap compared to their male counterparts

The quote that inspires me: “The extent of your vision is the boundary of your blessing. How far your vision can go is how much you can possess”- Pastor Chris Oyakhilome

THATO MOROKONG: DST/NRF Intern National Liaison

Subprogramme: National Liaison

When did I join ASSAf: 3 April 2018

What my job entails: Assisting with the coordination of the 2018 Membership elections and the 2018 ASSAf Council elections. I am also tasked with providing administrative assistance with the Gold Medal awards process, and as per request assisting with the activities in the International Liaison programme. Furthermore, I provide support in the relationship building with external stakeholders (science councils, national stakeholders).

What I love about my job is: I find the exposure and opportunities that come with working at ASSAf which also contribute to the advancement of my career growth heavily unmatched.

My fondest memory of working at ASSAf is: Attending the BRICS Young Scientist Forum and meeting one of my favourite South African Academics, Professor Adam Habib at ASSAf’s 2nd Presidential Roundtable.

What do I think are the biggest challenges that women face in the workplace: The lack of black female role models, more so in top leadership. Secondly, the male apathy and lack of support thereof that emerges when women are faced with challenges by virtue of their gender. A minute fraction of men take the initiative to speak up when they actually witness any discrimination against women.

The quote that inspires me:
“Dress up, show up and never give up” – Pastor At Boshoff