Scheme helps women scientists to juggle work and family

Phoebe Kalelwa Murunga, a masters student in environmental studies at Kenyatta University in Kenya, had to interrupt her postgraduate studies for about a year after she fell pregnant and had her baby.

Murunga (28) is currently a second-year student and says that although motherhood is a blessing, it comes with many responsibilities, including financial implications and post-partum depression.

“I had to balance class and breastfeeding my son, and this has not been a walk in the park. As a first-time mother, this came with so many changes in my physique, my self-esteem was reduced to zero.

“Paying fees became difficult due to my baby’s needs … I had to first take care of his needs before resuming my studies. As we speak, I am looking for ways of clearing my second-year fee balance,” she says.

Like Murunga, Nana Ama Amissah, a fourth-year postdoctoral research student at Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research, University of Ghana, took time off during her postgraduate studies.

She had to take time off for the birth of her first and second child in 2019-20. That was during her first and second year of her postdoctoral studies.

“I was sent emails and rang by the institution so often during the few weeks break [that] out of frustration I decided to end the 8-12 weeks break,” she recalls.

The challenges Murunga and Ammisah have experienced are familiar to women scientists.

At PhD-level a 2021 study found that women need an additional six months to finish their PhDs and have one less paper accepted for publication during their doctoral studies, compared with their male counterparts. This is according to the findings of a peer-reviewed paper published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Against the backdrop of growing research about factors that prevent women from advancing in their academic careers fast enough, the scientist-after-child grant was born.

What is the scheme about?

The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), a programme unit of UNESCO, recently came up with the scheme that targets early-career researchers with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

The scheme is a component of a capacity-building programme at TWAS called the Seed Grant for New African Principal Investigators (SG-NAPI), which was launched in 2021 and has several sub-programmes including the scientist-after-child grant.

“The scheme only targets female grantees to provide extra support to those women scientists who are going through a pregnancy or have recently given birth.

“The rationale behind the extra support is for instance [to support] a woman scientist forced out of the lab due to pregnancy and leaving her project on hold for some time during the child-birth period.

“Therefore, she may need some tailored support to help her research work move forward after the pause associated with childbirth”, Max Paoli, the programme coordinator of TWAS, told University World News.

Murunga, describing the scheme as something that champions gender equality, said an initiative like the scientist-after-child grant would have helped her.

“This kind of support is a stress reliever that will enable female students to complete their studies in time like their male counterparts, hence a motivation for young mothers”.

Amissah agrees. “The scientist-after-birth scheme sounds good for getting acclimatised to a new life after birth and will help students to balance family and work. I would like to add that most of our research has to be planned mentally by applying for grants like writing proposals, performing lab work, and closing early to attend to the kids,” she said.

Support for programme

Nodding at the initiative, Professor Ifeoma J Okoye, who works in the field of radiation medicine at the College of Medicine at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, said that she strongly aligns with the ethos of the project because she believes it has the capacity to be sustainable.

“This opportunity, the scientist-after-child scheme, will certainly, considerably reduce the psycho-social mental stress, suffered by early career women who are trying at the same time to start their families and to expand them,”she said.

In addition to this gender-targeted scheme, Okoye added that there is a need to open the pathway for women in science by dismantling biases that prevent women from dreaming of their science careers, providing support along the road through continuous mentorship, skills development, and networking opportunities, creating opportunities for equity in science careers, and creating opportunities that are favourable and flexible to educate the girl child in science and for career progression.

Mindful of how marriage and children can slow down studies and career progression, even women who are not or have not started families are in support of the scheme.

Lorine Nyongesa, a PhD student in genetics at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, is one of them.

“I am happy to hear that someone is supporting women. A colleague paused to have a baby and she [was] really delayed as the rest of us proceeded with the coursework and our projects. It was thoroughly frustrating for her. She had so much catching up to do, so an initiative supporting such demographics is amazing,” she said.

The 34-year-old added that the initiative would also be very useful if it allowed women who get pregnant to outsource a research assistant for their work when they go on maternity leave, given that some lab chemicals are carcinogenic and are even worse for expectant mothers at an early stage of pregnancy.

Other pro-women programmes

Research has recommended that to help women scientists, in particular early-career researchers, family-friendly policies and facilities that are supportive of women’s roles as wives and mothers are needed.

Examples of best practices include covering the costs of postgraduate students who are breastfeeding mothers to bring their child and a babysitter along when they have to attend training and stopping the funding clock during their maternity leave, if they request it, with funding resuming upon their return to doctoral studies. Affordable and adequate childcare, in particular for children aged 0-6 years, can also help women.

There are also programmes in addition to the scientist-after-child-cheme that attempt to support women scientists. The Africa Academy of Sciences has the African Postdoctoral Training Initiative (APTI), which aims to train fellows to become scientific leaders.

Although the project involves both men and women, eleven women have benefited from the programme since its inception in 2019.

“Over the years male scientists have dominated the science world hence the flexibility offered by the APTI project to enable more early career female scientists to apply and get enrolled in the fellowship,” Sheila Wetugi, the programmes officer for APTI told University World News.

In addition to a long list of topics covered, the APTI also focuses on support of women scientists are women’s sexual and reproductive health and maternal, neonatal, and child health, the last including nutrition, growth, and neurodevelopment.

Also, with support from the Research and Innovation Systems for Africa Fund RISA, a programme to support and strengthen research and innovation in six countries, the women-led UKAid-funded Mawazo Institute is supporting early-career researchers.

The six countries include Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, and Ethiopia.

With a sharp focus on women, the Mawazo Institute has a programme known as Mawazo Voices, that elevates the voices of African women researchers through public and policy engagement. It has a fellowship programme that supports African women PhD students from across the continent working on emerging development issues and providing them with virtual, on-demand training, mentorship, and access to funding that supports research activities, conference travel, research translation, and cross-sector collaborations.

“Doing a PhD is not easy. You have to be tough, creative, and be an analytical thinker through the process to find out and bring a unique perspective of women to the table,” said Dr Fiona Wanjiku Moejes, the chief executive officer of the Mawazo Institute told University World News.

Harmonising with the scientist-after-child scheme, Moejes said: “I think the scheme is fantastic to make women feel comfortable and support them to achieve their dreams. We tend to return to the academic space after childbirth too soon for fear of being left behind, feeling like it was a race. This kind of scheme for women is encouraged by normalising parental leave”.

According to Okoye, supporting women beyond initiatives can be achieved by creating an infrastructure of diverse stakeholders who all agree on focusing on a common goal for women and girls by reviewing the education policies, fostering a healthy gender balance to yield positive effects in the psychology of women and dismantling the false notion that women are soft and less mentally assertive than their male counterparts.