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Gender roles create barriers for African women in science


Researchers report feeling “time poor” and living “two lives”

A study exploring how African gender roles affect the experiences of early-career researchers on the continent has exposed the complex pressures that might be putting women off science careers. 

The study, published on 17 August in Global Health Research and Policy, draws on in-depth interviews with 32 women and 26 men aged between 25 and 50 from 13 sub-Saharan African countries. The interviews were carried out between May and December 2018, with most participants identifying themselves as the first generation to be highly educated in their families.

The study found that the time commitment involved in a research career is a major problem for many, especially women, who carry a heavier care burden in most African societies. “The normative scientific career progression described by participants is structured around the idea of spending ‘extra time’ at work, which does not reflect social realities for most women and some men in sub-Saharan Africa,” write the authors, who are based in Kenya and the United Kingdom.

Juggling career and family

Gender-based power relations within families and the wider society shaped participants’ ability to devote time to research. Both male and female participants told the study team that gender norms—such as the expectation that women take on the lion’s share of household and care work in the family—rendered women scientists in Africa “time poor”. This was true regardless of their marital status or whether they had children.  

Many women described trying to juggle two different lives—relating to their career, and to their family. Women at an early stage of their career complained they had no role models of women in senior scientific positions who also had successful marriages: “Their perception, that most senior women had to ‘sacrifice’ their marriages to enable them progress in their careers, negatively impacted their potential ambitions for career progression in scientific research.”

Women spoke of constraints preventing them from travelling for work, such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, or expectations that they should stay close to home. One married woman with young children said women who prioritised their careers would face judgement from society. “Whatever happens to the children in Africa, the woman is definitely blamed,” another said.  

Men also feel pressure

Male participants also reported experiencing pressures from family and society that prevented them from conforming to the expectations of a science career, which includes spending a lot of time away from home, either travelling or at work. 

One man said that there’s a view that the marriages of men who travel much suffer as a result. Another man said that as the first-born son he was expected to preside over important family events, which impeded his ability to travel. 

Other men felt a lack of understanding from their families made it difficult to commit to a science career. Relatives often did not understand the career progression of science, or why scientists appear to remain in training well into adulthood. “You will die in school,” one male participant said he was told by a relative. 

‘Fundamental rethink’ needed

The study’s authors conclude that addressing the barriers that gender roles pose for science careers in Africa will require action from research institutions and funders. “A fundamental rethink of the normative scientific career structure in sub-Saharan Africa is required to create equitable opportunities, increase diversity and improve the well-being of both female and male scientific researchers,” they write. 

For example, research institutions could provide staff with more practical support for parenting, such as childcare and parental leave, they write. Funders could develop a more locally appropriate and achievable approach to measuring “excellence” for African scientists, they urge, noting that “western” scientific norms focussed on productivity may not work in an African context. 

Age limits for opportunities like funding and appointments should also be reconsidered, the authors write, as these disadvantage individuals who, for whatever reason, need extra time to navigate through the stages of their research careers.