The battles of Sub-Saharan African women scientists continue

Only a third of scientists in Africa are women – and, while gender equality in African research is gradually progressing, women scientists in most countries continue to describe their careers as an ‘obstacle course’.

It would take a century for women to achieve parity with their male counterparts at the present rate, reported the French newspaper Le Monde, quoting projections from the 2023 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report.

While countries in the Maghreb were making progress, and South Africa was nearing equality, according to UNESCO, in recent years in the rest of the continent the number of women researchers had remained at about a third, reported Le Monde.

And, while the UNESCO report on science noted that more women than men gained a masters degree, representing 53%, only 43% continued on to a doctorate and barely a quarter become researchers.

They still had to face enormous challenges, including in infectious diseases, pharmacological and genetic issues, access to water, climate change, renewable energies, artificial intelligence, agriculture, biodiversity, engineering, astronomy, mathematics, finance – all evident in the most acute areas of research. Women represent 35% of PhDs working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, reported Le Monde.

To encourage progress, UNESCO and the Oréal Foundation introduced in 2010 the annual Prix Femmes et Science en Afrique Subsaharienne, originally for 20 women scientists in Sub-Saharan Africa for their research excellence, and increased from this year to 30 winners. Their awards, to consolidate their careers, range from €10,000 (US$10,850) to €20,000 (US$21,700).

“We decided to increase the prize because progress is too slow,” said Alexandra Palt, director of the foundation. “It is a message to the world: the future is science, and science is for women. But, when we have won the battle to be a scientist, the war is not finished – even less so in Africa than elsewhere. African women face so many obstacles to get there. The battle continues after the doctorate, while they should feel they have succeeded.”

In spite of support from their families, the women talk of their daily struggle against gender stereotyping, social burdens of motherhood and domestic work, lack of information available on scientific careers, lack of resources to carry out their research which obliges them to cut it short, and sexual harassment, which militates against success and can endanger their careers.

Training to support women academics

Since 2018, UNESCO and the foundation have been offering each year’s winners a week’s training to prepare them to overcome the obstacle course in such matters as leadership, negotiating salaries and gaining research credits, communication for disseminating the results of their research to decision-makers and the media, and to avoid isolation and forge professional contacts.

“I found the training on harassment very important,” Awa Bousso Dramé, a Senegalese PhD graduate and researcher in applied artificial intelligence into geospatial sciences for monitoring the West African coast, told Le Monde.

“It’s a very insidious taboo to demonstrate at an academic level, because we are performing within a system where masculine domination causes harm. I’ve understood that, if we’re organised in a network, the moment Awa is hurt, there are 10,000 ‘Awas’ who can take action. Men think twice before saying disagreeable words, sexually harassing or discrediting.”

Dramé told Le Monde the training in negotiation had made her stronger. “I learned to negotiate financial contracts which did not tie my hands but, on the contrary, enabled me to handle my research career while keeping my independence.”

Dramé is one of many prize-winners who have been involved with raising awareness in young people, setting up an institute in Dakar in 2022 specialising in STEM subjects, covering 16 African countries and mentoring 150 young women aged 15 to 25 to support them in their science studies, reported Le Monde.

Representing an older generation, Francine Ntoumi is a distinguished Congolese parasitologist who has earned many prestigious international distinctions, including the African Union’s Kwame Nkrumah prize for her research into malaria.

She developed in Brazzaville the Femmes et Sciences programme which awards 10 scholarships each year to female students in the two Congos, Cameroon, Chad, Central Africa and Gabon, “still not competitive enough, and under-represented in research,” she said. She visits schools and opens up to teenagers the laboratories of the Congolese Foundation for Medical Research, which she founded in 2008. — Compiled by Jane Marshall.

This article is drawn from local media. University World News cannot vouch for the accuracy of the original reports.

Le Monde published this special report by Sandrine Berthaud-Clair in partnership with the Fondation l’Oréal.