Seal the 'leaky pipe' to increase number of women researchers

Women researchers have a critical role in contributing to Africa’s transformative agenda. [iStockphoto]

The number of women involved in science and research in Kenya and Africa has remained low as recent studies show.

The UNESCO Institute of Statistics report shows that women account for only about 31 per cent of the total workforce of research-oriented activities across sub-Saharan Africa. This compares to nearly 50 per cent for South Eastern Europe and 44 per cent for the Caribbean, Central Asia and Latin America.

Women researchers have a critical role in contributing to Africa’s transformative agenda. Unfortunately, they remain significantly underrepresented in higher education, specifically in research disciplines and careers. This is partly attributed to the metaphorical ‘leaky pipe’ - a constant attrition of women that ends up drastically thinning their numbers higher up in the research ecosystem.

This leakage is powerfully demonstrated by evidence by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics that shows women actively pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees where they outnumber men at 53 per cent. But the numbers start to slide at the PhD level where they represent 43 per cent of researchers.

Moving further up, the numbers start to dip drastically where they make up 27 per cent of permanent staff at flagship universities, and 10 per cent of members in national science academies on the continent.

Looking at this issue through a global lens, the gender discrepancy widens more at the researcher level where men account for a whopping 72 per cent of the global total. This does not augur well for Africa and the world in general.

The lack of diversity and gender inclusion denies society creativity, innovation, productivity and a unique perspective from nearly half of the population. It is leading to the creation of unsustainable products, policies and services that are missing this critical perspective and voice. This does not only impact women - it impacts society in its entirety.

The culprit has clearly been fingered: Negative stereotyping, discrimination of women in both academia as well as workplace, and unsupported gender roles that burden women with domestic responsibilities that leave them with little time to work in laboratories, attend conferences and build necessary networks. In Kenya, and many other African societies, the problem is largely attributed to patriarchy.

African feminist writer Bibi Bakare-Yusuf highlights that in the African context, patriarchy refers to the organisation of social life and institutional structures in such a way that men have ultimate control over most aspects of women’s lives and actions.

Women account for only about 31 per cent of the total workforce of research-oriented activities across sub-Saharan Africa. [iStockphoto]

There is no doubt about it; traditional African society is unrepentantly patriarchal. It is characterised by current and historic unequal power relations between men and women. Women are systematically disadvantaged, subdued and oppressed.

Our society needs to resolve the challenges raised by the prejudices of social and political systems which place roadblocks in fully involving women in all spheres. The need to close the gender gap in science and research has elicited various debates, a critical one being that of embracing an African feminist approach in the entire ecosystem.

Women of an earlier era in America evolved their certain brand of what has been referred to as western feminism, to resolve a raft of challenges that faced them, including discrimination in various sectors. But this brand of feminism remains tarnished and questionable in Africa due its incompatibility with core African values such as family and community.

Yet, feminism, which is defined as a ‘movement to end sexist exploitation and oppression’, could still find a place in supporting the African woman scientist and researcher at the workplace by infusing the unique characteristics of African feminism.

Apart from challenging patriarchy, African feminism is concerned with the realities and intersectionalities of the challenges that African women face in their day-to-day lives - many associated with historical injustices. Such a move to tweak the tenets of feminism would greatly help the African woman researcher to understand herself better, discern what she wants to achieve, illuminate her past, present and future aspirations as well as help her understand what to think of others.

Srilatha Batliwala, a feminist and Author of “All about movements” states that movements are always about challenging power structures that matter because the people most affected by injustice join hands, organise themselves and act together for the change they seek – and through their collective power and passionate vision of a better world, they create deep and sustainable change.

Baby steps in turning these concepts into reality already are being undertaken. Interventions aimed at empowering women to pursue careers in the sciences as well as addressing gender inequalities and biases are now becoming a reality, courtesy of determined and sustained innovative approaches by a number of actors.

It will not be a walk in the park. Confronting prejudices of the past and negotiating with deeply entrenched cultural practices and beliefs across many of our societies is never easy.

It means heightened engagement with men at the workplace, lobbying and increased advocacy as well as practical interventions from stakeholders, all aimed at breaking the barriers and sealing off the ‘leaks’ on the pipe from the earliest possible level all the way to the very top. But the time to act is now.