Women scholars urged to seize global opportunities

African women scholars have been urged to be less cautious and take advantage of international opportunities open to them in respect of scholarships, fellowships, grants, leadership positions and career advancement.

They should not fear competing with men, said the Carnegie Corporation of New York Program Officer Andrea Johnson.

Speaking at the “Gender, leadership and research excellence in African universities” session of the Sixth African Higher Education and Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) Biennial Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, from 22-26 October, Johnson said: “In the past a trend has been observed where women took a very conservative approach in seeking international opportunities unless they were very sure they were very qualified and were very sure of winning.”

This was in contrast to men who more aggressively pursued opportunities whenever and wherever they found them, sometimes even when they did not qualify or stand a chance of winning.

Closer to home

Female scholars also tended to go for opportunities that were closer to home, perhaps informed by the need to be closer to their families. This frequently put them at a disadvantage in taking up lucrative international opportunities, Johnson said.

The academic community needed to help to build the confidence of female academics and, where possible, forego considerations that often unnecessarily disadvantaged them, she said.

“Would it not be good for funding institutions to ask for PhD qualifications as opposed to postdoctoral qualifications so as to accommodate more women, since there is not much difference between the two?” she said.

The point was echoed by University of Eldoret academic Elizabeth Njenga who said universities, charities, donors and governments need to review the conditions they set when offering scholarships, fellowships and other opportunities in order to attract female applicants.

Unrealistic age limits

Many of the opportunities have low and unrealistic age limits which lock out a number of women who acquire higher education qualifications later on in life owing to family responsibilities, the Kenyan professor said.

On the issue of research outputs, Lucy Irungu, vice-chancellor of the South Eastern Kenya University, said the African research community needs to establish its own reputable research journals to allow scholars to publish articles relevant to local development needs.

“It is obvious that you cannot publish in international journals when your research is geared at solving national and local problems, and this makes the need to have reputable African journals even more urgent,” Irungu said.

The failure to accommodate local research in established international journals contributed towards the low global ranking of African universities, she said.

Local research

“We operate in environments in which our communities that host us expect us to help them find solutions to their problems, and we should not be shy to align our research to fit the local agenda,” the vice-chancellor said.

On the issue of leadership, she said female academics shied away at times from leadership positions in higher education institutions, partly due to the political intrigue associated with such appointments which called for more than academic excellence on the part of female candidates.

Vice-chancellor of Uganda’s Muni University, Professor Christine Dranzoa, said it was unacceptable that despite all the progressive conventions, laws, rules and guidelines, women were still struggling to make an impact in science and academic leadership in Africa and that there were fewer than 50 women vice-chancellors out of approximately 1,500 universities in Africa.


There was a need for universities to audit the extent and manner in which they have dealt with gender issues in their ranks and introduce urgent reforms to overcome institutional weaknesses that could be contributing to the low number of women scientists in Africa, she said.

Her views were echoed by Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, head of African Women in Agriculture Research and Development (AWARD): “The time is now ripe to transform universities and research institutions to enable them to support and nurture women scientists,” she said.