Professor Mmantsae Moche Diale is a senior physicist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. All too often, she recalls, walking into an unfamiliar laboratory was an experience that sheeted home the gender disparity that pervades her profession.
“If there was equipment that I hadn’t encountered before, I would ask others how to use it,” she says.
“The men in the laboratory would usually just hand me the manual to read. If a man asked the same question, they would happily and quickly explain and demonstrate.”
These days one of the leading voices in solar energy research, and its commercial translation, Professor Diale says gender disparity has impacted her career progress very strongly.
“Often there are few other women you can talk to about your career,” she says. “One consequence of that is that you tend to keep to yourself and delay taking action to resolve issues that could have perhaps been quickly dealt with by asking a question or two.
“Male colleagues, by and large, aren’t happy to help with your problems.”
Marginalised at home, Professor Diale built an international reputation by attending physics conferences around the world, and maintaining a strong journal publication output. This, however, at times exacerbated the discrimination to which she was subjected.
“Many a time, in big conferences in physics, there were very few black women,” she notes. “Thus, I would get lost. Also, some physicists aren’t naturally interactive, and this tended to elevate my feeling of being isolated in my academic community.”
She continues to publish research and is prominent in South African government circles as an advocate for clean renewable energy. Her current passion is mentoring young entrepreneurs in the renewable energy space.
“Many people do not know how to translate their research ideas into business,” she says.
“Very few from developed countries have made it in business using their research knowledge. So, it is important that you get guidance on how to navigate challenging situations to translate your research into a product you can sell.”