Marriage and academics: A tightrope in traditional societies

Figures from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) show that only 28.2% of PhD holders in the country are women compared with 71.8% of men.

This discrepancy is alarming judged by the fact that, on lower academic qualification levels, women perform better. According to the ZimStat report, there were more females than males in diploma-skilled worker class 1 (53.6%), higher national diploma (51.1%) and postgraduate diploma and certificates (51.8%).

At primary school level, girls had the upper hand. At the ECD level, male enrolment was at 62.3% while female enrolment was at 63.7%.

Also, in January this year, University World News reported that enrolment in Zimbabwe’s universities and teacher training colleges has favoured women students in the past two to three years, according to a government report.

The Education Statistics Report 2018-20 released by ZimStat in December 2021 indicated that 50,699 women students were recruited by universities in 2018 compared with 43,432 males, while, in 2019, 60,149 women enrolled in comparison with 51,535 men. In 2020, the numbers were 62,629 and 53,699, respectively.

Also, according to an article in The Herald published on 10 December 2021, of the 5,483 students capped by President Emmerson Mnangagwa at the University of Zimbabwe in 2021, female students made up 53%, a trend which the university has been following over the past two years.

Factors affecting women doing PhDs

So why are there fewer female students pursuing PhD studies in Zimbabwe?

In society, a woman earns respect by being married and women want to balance education and marriage, said Dr Sarudzai Showa (PhD in applied mathematics), the chairperson of the department of applied mathematics at the National University of Science and Technology.

“A person can progress smoothly from an honours degree to a masters degree, but once they finish that before marriage, most ladies shelve their academic careers and concentrate on raising their families. Their fear is that, once they are over 30 years old, it will not be easy for them to get a man to marry them,” Showa said.

“Marriage comes with its own hurdles and, at times, it becomes very difficult for most people to return to the academic career path after marriage. Relocation, which normally comes with PhD studies, is a barrier to many married women. It is also important to note that our economy does not reward educated people. Girls with talent will prefer to work for NGOs and earn money other than doing PhD degrees.”

Showa also said career guidance is lacking in some areas, especially remote regions. She said the accessibility of funding is a further hurdle for young women. “It is not easy for parents to pay for their children’s fees from undergraduate to PhD level. Though there are funding opportunities specifically for women, most young women do not have this information,” she added.

Showa said it was high time that society accepted that a woman with a PhD can be as good a wife as an uneducated woman. “What matters in marriage is love, not the level of education. Men shun educated women and society does not respect women who are not married. These societal behaviours have affected most women with potential as they want to fit in their societies,” she explained.

“Women who have managed to get there should be ‘stepping stones’ for other young ladies. Career guidance workshops organised by people who have made it will help. I got to know of the sponsors for my PhD through someone. If we [those who have made it in the academic field] disseminate funding information to people who need it, that information will definitely make a positive impact.”

She also said a supporting family plays a major role in the life of a girl child. A PhD programme is generally challenging and one definitely needs supporting pillars.

Showa said she also faced some hurdles in obtaining her PhD. She received a BSc degree in 2004 and NUFU funding (Norwegian Council of Universities’ Programme for Development Research and Education) to complete her masters, which she did in 2006.

“I worked as an assistant lecturer from January 2007 and got to know of the OWSD (Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World) funding from the chairperson of the department I was working for. I got OWSD funding to do my PhD, starting in the last quarter of 2008.

“I went to a certain university and when the supervisor realised that I was pregnant, he told me that I would not be able to cope with the pressure and advised me to tell my sponsors that I could not cope with the pressure of being a first-time mother and starting a PhD and was, therefore, quitting.

“Fortunately, I was granted the opportunity to nurse my firstborn by the funders. I finally started my PhD in 2010 with a different supervisor and at a different institution on a sandwich programme. I submitted my thesis in 2014 for marking, but it took close to two years to have the results of my thesis because of petty administrative issues.

“I had to graduate in 2016. The challenges were there, as highlighted on my path to a PhD. If the funders had not permitted me to shelve my studies, it would have meant that I was going to miss the opportunity. My parents, husband and in-laws were very supportive, and this gave me the zeal and energy to overcome most barriers along the way,” she added.

Meanwhile, the ZimStat report said that, in Zimbabwe, the main fields men specialise in are engineering, manufacturing and construction (25.2% of the total) while women mainly specialised in education (27.6% of the total).

PhDs are luxuries

Dr Chipo Mukonza, the founder and managing director of RC Global Research Training and Development and a lecturer at South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology in Polokwane, said acquiring a PhD is a journey that requires tenacity. She added that economic factors, high interest rates, inflation and little disposable income increase the workload for women as they hustle to feed and support their families.

Mukonza said social-cultural beliefs such as that a woman’s position is to look after her family and children, also contribute to fewer PhDs, not only in Zimbabwe but in the whole of Africa. She said that many women still believe this and that they are satisfied with obtaining only one degree.

“The increased workload means that women will not have time to further pursue their studies. Money for tuition is scarce, there are so many needs women must cover and, as a result, enrolling for a PhD becomes a luxury,” Mukonza, who holds a PhD in business administration, said.

She said there is a need for more funding at PhD level. This will help “cushion” women when they lose income when they enrol in a PhD programme.

Mukonza said support at home is crucial. “I managed to complete my PhD because I had a good support system. My husband was supportive – financially, emotionally and socially. My sisters also supported me by looking after my children. I also had NRF [National Research Foundation, South Africa] funding which helped supplement my income.

“I had good mentors and supportive supervisors who simplified concepts for me. In addition, I surrounded myself with information related to my discipline. I attended conferences which helped me to grow and overcome my challenges,” she said.

Overwhelmed by multiple roles

Dr Mandidayingeyi Machingauta, who holds a PhD in applied mathematics, said Zimbabwe as a developing country faces various challenges and women are at the receiving end of the patriarchal nature of the Zimbabwean society. She lectures in the department of surveying and geomatics at Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University.

Machingauta said taking up the further commitment of working towards a PhD becomes near impossible as women are mothers, wives, employees, and sisters, among others. These multiple roles overwhelm them so much that pursuing higher education qualifications becomes a challenge.

She said the problem is Africa-wide because people on the continent share the same norms and beliefs and face similar challenges.

“Financial constraints do play a part. We tend to marry young and when we want to further equip ourselves, we must put our children’s education first, so we tend to hold ourselves back. Though much is being done towards gender equality, we still find that women face stereotyping and are not respected as much as their male counterparts when undertaking their studies,” she said.

“It is imperative that women be given support at every level, starting from the family unit up to government level. The whole system needs an overhaul, so the structure appreciates the role women play. Educate a woman, educate a nation.”