Women’s participation in research remains low in Africa, with women making up only 30% of the science community. This is similar within the tertiary education sector in many countries. Some subjects, such as engineering and physics, have exceptionally low women’s representation. This is not only a problem in Africa: for instance, women account for about 20% of earned doctorates in these fields in the United States.
On June 12, icipe, The Regional Coordination Unit for the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF) convened an online Seminar with three major objectives to: (1) share results of the recently concluded RSIF gender study, (2) present initial recommendations for enhancing the participation of women in RSIF PhD programs and research for enabling RSIF to achieve its gender target of 50% women’s representation across its programs, and (3) obtain valuable feedback and buy-in from participants. The workshop participants were icipe management, lead contact persons from the RSIF African Host Universities (AHUs), gender experts, representatives of organizations working to advance women in science in sub-Saharan Africa, and African women scientists in our networks.
RSIF is the flagship programme of the African Government-led Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology which aims to (1) Create a stock of highly skilled scientists, professionals and innovators in applied sciences, engineering and technology (ASET) areas; (2) Identify and nurture young talented Africans to further their studies in ASET fields where expertise is needed most; (3) Address imbalances in the number of women and disadvantaged groups in ASET fields in Africa; and (4) Build African university capacity to provide relevant ASET training and to ensure continued investment in scaling up ASET education and workforce.
Just over 20% of the 1751 applicants for RSIF PhD scholarship Cohort 2 in 2019 were women. The RSIF program sets ambitious targets for women’s representation among its PhD scholars (50%) based on a commitment to gender equality and excellence in ASET fields to support Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Achievement of the RSIF gender target requires a carefully crafted and implementable gender strategy, along with deliberate and continuous engagement on the part of the RSIF team, RSIF AHUs, and partner institutions. The goal of the gender strategy is not to advantage women relative to men, but rather to level the playing field and ensure equal opportunity for women and men.
To inform the RSIF Gender Strategy, the RSIF gender study involved both qualitative and quantitative elements, including focus groups and in-depth interviews at the AHUs, and data from an online survey of 262 PhD alumni of 40 African universities. Results of data analyses, along with extensive literature review, provided an evidence base to inform development of the gender strategy to enhance women’s participation in PhD Programs and Research in ASET fields in African universities.
The Seminar discussed with participants 11 interventions to enhance RSIF women doctoral scholars’ enrollment, experience, performance, and completion. Priority interventions are those related to infusing family-friendly aspects into the program, providing women with mentoring and supervisory support that is tailored to their specific needs and circumstances, and ensuring women scholars have awareness of gender-related policies and practices at their institutions.
Enhancing gender inclusiveness in the sciences will require significant investment and deliberate efforts at various levels by various actors, including by universities, governments, and other institutions. However, the important payoffs from this investment justify the costs: removing existing barriers to women’s entry and advancement in ASET fields will increase substantially the number of intelligent, talented people making important scientific contributions towards solving Africa’s complex development problems. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has made increasingly evident the enormous importance of science and the need to harness Africa’s existing potential for innovative home-grown solutions in addressing the pandemic. When a greater diversity of perspectives is engaged in scientific and technical endeavors, conventional assumptions are challenged, scientific findings are more complete and robust, and ASET innovations address the demands and circumstances of a diversity of stakeholders, including men and women. The draft RSIF Gender Strategy will be shared with key stakeholders for input before its finalisation later this year.