Gender parity in numbers is the commonly used evidence to establish institutions commitment to include women in science careers, which is a good starting point. However, equal representation of women and men at earlier stages does not necessarily translate into equitable career progression in advanced stages. In many cases, compared to men, women tend to experience slow progression or/and high attrition from science research. Globally, scientific systems and conventions are not gender neutral, as they compromise on women’s needs, interests and priorities as they pursue scientific research careers. Women find it hard adjusting to work culture of science that requires long working hours, scientific mobility, unconducive work environment. As such, there is need to go beyond increasing the numbers towards paying attention on improving the career experiences of such women research scientists.
In my studies as a PhD student at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom, I’ve been conducting a qualitative study aimed at exploring the barriers and enablers to gender equitable scientific career pathways within the context of the ‘Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science in Africa’ (DELTAS Africa) funded African research institutions. Drawing from this study, key challenges/barriers experienced by women research scientists as well as their desired actions for change towards narrowing the gender inequity gap in scientific career progression in Africa are presented.
Barriers/challenges faced by women in scientific research careers
In my research, I’ve found that women’s (lack of) progression in scientific careers is shaped by intersections between gender roles and social power relations of gender within the family, wider society and academic and research institutions themselves. This creates cumulative disadvantage causing leaky pipeline, as more are likely to drop out at various career stages. To begin with, women are constrained by conflicts between the normative demands of family and scientific research career that calls for long working hours and frequent scientific mobility. This results to poor work-life balance, marital relationships and family suffering, and prejudice for women who prioritise to first establish career over marriage.
Some women scientists are constrained by patriarchal norms – that is social norms and values exerting pressure on unmarried female scientists to get married and have children – at a time when peers are establishing their science career. Some receive sentiments from their parents and grandparents such as: ’Your eggs will die’; ‘I need to see your child before I die’. Overall, such experiences make scientific research career as ‘a steeper hill for women to climb on!’
“There is no work -life balance in science, yeah…Relationships went through the roof!” (Female researcher, unmarried, 40-44 years old)
Women scientists also experience inequitable structures of gendered support systems within institutions. This was manifested through insufficient mentoring for lack of psychosocial support and dearth of female role models, with the latter attributed to limited number of African women in senior scientific and leadership positions who have been able to strike a balance between marriage and science career. The lack of formal provision of flexible working time within the institution was perceived by some as ‘gender discriminatory’ and reflective of ‘unconscious biases from the institutional leadership’. Some of them were dissatisfied with the mode of provision of flexible working due to it being dependent on supervisory agreement. They also complained of lack of institutional support for women researchers with nursing needs through absence of mother and baby friendly lactation rooms.
“But, I don’t see any successful powerful and huge women in their fields like science directors that are still in their marriage…” (Female researcher, married with under-5 year old child, 25-29 years old)
Women scientific researchers also experience negative practices and culture at workplace. This was manifested through gender stereotypes and unconscious biases mainly perpetuated by senior male scientists. For example, some male scientific managers cautioning female scientists not to get pregnant within the lifecycle of a research project; colleagues questioning ‘why you aren’t getting married’. This was perceived as making the workplace uncomfortable for female researchers.
In addition, women researchers reported experiences of sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation. Bullying was considered as subtle for which some senior male researchers who some junior and early career female researchers perceived as appearing threatened or made uncomfortable by their fast-track career progression to senior positions in a similar research area. Some women researchers reported they had experienced sexual harassment, although most of them were unwilling to give in-depth details about it while still in the fellowship programme.
Some expressed that it’s hard to report for fear of victimization citing a lack of clear institutional procedures and confidential structures to effectively report and address such issues; while others were not aware of institutional policy or procedures about sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation. The women scientists perceived such experiences as compounded by women’s under-representation in scientific leadership and decision-making bodies.
Key recommendations on desired actions for change
To enhance equitable scientific career progression, various forward looking desired actions for positive change have been suggested by women researchers themselves. These include:
- The need for institutional commitment to create supportive and gender sensitive work environment. This can be achieved through establishing and implementing formal standard operating procedures at institutional level on how to report and handle discrimination, intimidation, bullying and sexual harassment. Improvement in communication of such institutional policies. Commitment by institutions to roll out online campaigns on their websites inquiring ‘What is your institution doing to enhance gender equity at workplace?’ to spur positive mindset about the issue at workplace.
- Need to promote family friendly policies and practices in relation to caregiving obligations in institutions via provision for child-care support e.g. subsidies for childcare outside of the workplace and establishing mother and baby friendly lactation rooms within the institutions. This also calls for improvement on fellowship adverts by stating anticipated support available in addition to declaring that ‘female candidates are highly encouraged to apply’.
- Make effort to build and nurture a supportive research community through launching spaces and forums where female researchers can discuss and provide mutual support around career progression challenges, career decisions and work-life balance issues. Need to develop formal standard operating procedures for flexible working by researchers; and a more structured approach to career and psycho-social mentoring for fellows. Make available occupational therapist and counselor at workplace to help handle psychological issues experienced by researchers.
- Need for better representation of women in senior scientific and leadership positions to help enhance gender equitable decision-making on career progression matters affecting research fellows. This calls for mindset change around dealing with patriarchal social norms, values and expectations. This can be achieved through providing leadership and empowerment training programmes for women researchers to help build confidence, resilience and support individual decision making around career progression.
- Need for community and public awareness creation on what research scientists do, particularly about the nature of science that requires long working hours and frequent scientific mobility, for which women researchers tend to be more disadvantaged based on their reproductive gender roles compared to the men.
These recommendations provide a scientific foundation upon which critical thinking and analysis of the problem of inequitable progression in science and STEM careers can be founded. In addition, research funders and national governments should consider providing awards for organisations and institutions that are committed towards improving women’s experiences at workplace.