Women scientists can move forward saying, “Yes, I will”

Pontsho Maruping found support by creating a network of professional women she could chat with.1 credit

Voices of Africa

Pontsho Maruping, Deputy Director General for Operations and Business Processes at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) in Cape Town, describes a career transition from mining to space and how she juggles the expectations of her male and female colleagues. Maruping’s career story is the fourth in an eight-part series on women scientists in sub-Saharan Africa.

I call myself a career nomad. I started in the mining sector in South Africa, but when the country transitioned to democratic government in 1994, I wanted to help rebuild our science system. I participated in the development of our space program and I did a master’s degree in space systems engineering at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, followed by a master’s degree in business administration at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland.

I started working with South Africa’s Technology Innovation Agency to support innovators and tech start-ups with seed funding. I then joined SARAO about five years ago as a commercialization manager, finding other applications for the technologies that were used to build the institution’s radio telescope. Today, as deputy general manager, I am also responsible for functions such as human resources, finance, IT infrastructure and telescope operations.

I’ve worked in some of the most masculine industries you can work in. Several things are needed to overcome racial or gender bias. The first is to do the job given to you, to commit wholeheartedly and to deliver. When you provide what is needed, it can erase people’s biases.

The power of mentoring

Having good mentors also helps. My first boss was a woman who recognized my leadership abilities and gave me a team to manage early in my career.

When seeking advice from mentors in higher positions, I would be very specific – I would only turn to them for things they had ideas about, and not use them as a general sounding board. It’s important to have more than one person in your network and think about how to involve them strategically.

Later in my career, as the only woman in a leadership position, I discovered that it was important to manage the expectations of my colleagues. Women expect me to always be by their side, and men expect me to fit in with them. So, I need the courage to talk about the things that matter, but I also need to be able to let things go sometimes.

For example, I talk a lot more about diversity and inclusion than less than ideal office space. I also have team members who are really passionate about community development and I champion their cause because I understand their motivation.

Give the example

There was a time when I traveled a lot for work, and it was a challenge to make sure my young daughter was taken care of. But it’s also important for my daughter to see her mother doing jobs that women don’t usually do. My job helps her see that she can go after anything. Through the policies I worked on, future generations of women will have opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math that were not open to previous generations.

For most of my career, I’ve had a certain level of flexibility when it comes to parenting. I could take a lunch break later to pick up my daughter from school and then go back to work. I would combine work trips to visit stakeholders in other parts of the country with my daughter’s field hockey games. This allowed me to create moments of complicity with my daughter and to be an active parent. I never had a boss who micromanaged me, because I was professional and doing my job.

Working moms can’t strive for perfection – you can’t do everything exactly right. I used to joke around with my male counterparts and say, “I need a wife too!” They don’t realize that there are things their wives can’t do, because they take on most of the family responsibilities. There is certainly more to be done to create working environments that allow women to integrate their work into their family life.

Simple things can be done to help women stay in science careers. One is to make specific grants to researchers rather than to institutions. If a grant is attached to a researcher, they have more flexibility to take time off or move to another institution without losing their funding.

Support networks

It’s sometimes lonely with no other older women around. To help, I created a network of professional women in other organizations. I can talk about things with them, like the time a male colleague agreed to a particular project in person and then objected to it in front of the full committee meeting — which I don’t think he would have done if I had been a man. I ask these other women, “Is this really happening or am I imagining it?” It helps to lift your spirits to have these conversations. We generally encounter the same types of problems, whether in the conference room or when managing a conflict.

I generally consider myself a strong person, but I’m okay with losing a bit of control and not caring what my male colleagues will say. During the pandemic, I suggested that SARAO make counseling available to all staff and their families. Some colleagues suggested that people could go see their own doctor, but I pushed back saying that not everyone has access to such services. They also suggested that people wouldn’t ask for help because that would be a sign of weakness, but I think it’s actually a show of strength to recognize when you’re not doing well.

When I am asked to lead a new project, I tell young professionals to say “yes”. Women tend to want to be perfect first, but it was the times when I said yes to challenges that gave me the greatest opportunities for professional growth. Sometimes I failed, but I learned in the process. So tell yourself, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to manage the team. In general, unless it’s completely beyond your reach or level of education, you can learn and there’s help around.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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