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Women In Science, Take A Bow – L’Oréal – UNESCO

Burn wounds are increasingly becoming an important cause of death in the Middle East and Africa. In South Africa, burns affect about 3.2% of the population annually, more than 1.8 million people. This places a huge financial burden on the national healthcare system as well as the economy of the country. Many efforts have been made to produce an effective bandage that has the potential to close the wound and accelerate scar healing as the process of wound regeneration is time-consuming and the material for a specific wound type is important for proper healing. 

This is why the research of Mapula Razwinani, a Postdoctoral candidate at the Durban University of Technology, into using plant extracts encapsulated in hydrocolloid bandages is critically important for the future treatment of burn wounds. 

Razwinani is one of seven phenomenal women scientists – three doctoral and four post-doctoral – who were honoured at the 2023 L’Oréal – UNESCO For Women in Science National Awards ceremony (FWIS) on the 12th of October 2023.

She is joined by fellow Laureates: Sapokazi Timakwe (doctorate: electrochemistry/nanomaterials), Alexandra Howard (doctorate: agricultural sciences), Anna Chrysostomou (doctorate: theoretical physics), Alex Delport (post-doctorate: biological sciences), Gugu Khubeka (post-doctorate: chemistry), and Nireshni Mitchev (post-doctorate: health sciences).

The programme in South Africa is now in its fifth year and provides funding to women scientists in support of the research they are conducting in their respective fields of study. The South African programme forms part of the greater Fondation L’Oréal – UNESCO FWIS programme, which celebrates empowering women scientists around the world for 25 years in 2023. 

Through its 52 regional and national programmes, the initiative has supported 250 talented young women researchers globally at a crucial period in their careers, during their thesis or post-doctoral studies.

While women scientists are leading research across the world, a UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 reveals that they represent a mere 33,3% of researchers globally, and their work rarely gains the recognition it deserves.

The report notes that each step up the ladder of the scientific research system sees a drop in female participation until, at the highest echelons of scientific research and decision-making, there are very few women left. In addition, another report by BMJ Global Health found that female health researchers in sub-Saharan Africa face significant challenges in publishing in first or last-author places in academic journals, with men comprising 61% of first-authors and 65% of last-authors.

It is challenges such as these that make initiatives such as the L’Oréal – UNESCO FWIS programme so important for women scientists globally and is a testament to L’Oréal’s unwavering commitment to the empowerment and advancement of women in science. To date, the programme has awarded more than 100 laureates, five of whom have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. This is notable, given that less than 4% of Nobel Prizes for science have ever been awarded to women, according to the UNESCO report.

Razwinani is delighted with the award and says the recognition by L’Oréal is a boost for her personal and professional growth, as well as her efforts to be the best version of herself. “The award brings a multitude of career benefits for me, furthering my professional development and allowing me to be an inspiration for other females in STEM.”

Fellow recipient Nireshni Mitchev says that she was drawn to the programme because of its specific focus on the contributions of women leading research in their respective fields.

“For me, it acknowledges the fact that women wear multiple hats; we have families and additional roles, and this funding is flexible and caters for many factors to assist female scientists to grow.”

“I also look up to the L’Oréal-UNESCO alumni, and am proud to now be associated with this amazing initiative. I am honoured that the importance of my research and the impact it will have for women’s health has been recognised, and this award is a reminder that I am making a difference and motivation to keep persevering.”

Serge Sacre, L’Oréal South Africa Country Manager, says recognising women scientists in South Africa is particularly important. “A 2021 Global Gender Report indicates that less than 13% of women choose to study STEM disciplines in South Africa. This can be attributed to many factors such as the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, a flawed education system and a lack of role models, amongst others.”

“That said, we at L’Oréal firmly believe that women have a critical role to play in helping solve some of South Africa’s, and indeed the world’s, most pressing challenges. They need to be represented at every level of the scientific supply chain, from research and implementation, to policy and programming.”

Not only are the scientists recognised by L’Oréal helping to change the world through their discoveries, they are also role models for younger generations of women researchers who want to pursue their scientific careers and break the glass ceiling.

L’Oréal’s investment in the sciences goes back to its earliest days when a young chemist who wanted to help women who wanted to change their hair colour, came up with a simple and innovative hair colour product and thus founded the company.

Since then, a scientific approach has become ingrained in the company’s DNA. Today, it employs about 4,000 researchers and has established 21 scientific research centres around the world, including South Africa, to deliver products that are proven performers in their respective markets and cater to the diverse beauty needs of consumers around the world. 

Sacre acknowledges there is much to be done to achieve true gender equality in science. “At L’Oréal, we envision a world where girls are encouraged to study science and are enabled to do so, where female students stay the course in pursuing their post-graduate studies, and where scientists are judged purely on the merit of their discoveries and the potential of their work to change the world.”

“We congratulate the L’Oréal – UNESCO For Women in Science recipients of 2023, and eagerly look forward to their achievements in the future.”