A global network of researchers

Women in Research: Stories from the Global South

By Sian Harris | Feb. 14, 2018  |

(This article was first posted on Scholarly Kitchen)

In November I wrote a post about gender inequity in higher education and about some of the particular issues and challenges in the Global South.

Over the past few months at INASP (where I am Publications and Engagement Manager) we’ve been talking to some of the inspiring women with whom we work, to produce a set of six interviews showing how these women are making a difference. This collection was published for Sunday’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

The interviewees, from Tanzania, Kenya, Nepal, Somalia and Sierra Leone, bring a wealth of different experiences and perspectives and their stories are exciting and inspiring. Many of the interviewees bring perspectives of past or present work in Europe or the USA, and many common themes emerge between countries.

Balancing time

In particular, balancing time between research and expectations of home life was a common theme across countries and continents.

Librarian Miriam Conteh-Morgan, who returned to Sierra Leone five years ago after many years working at Ohio State University, USA shared her own experiences:

Whatever career advancements or academic advancements I’ve made have all revolved around family life. For example, when training to be a librarian I didn’t do this full time but part time so then I could just do two classes a week. I would be sitting in my evening classes doing my grocery list as I needed to shop on my way home.

This is a common experience for professional women who are mothers and was shared by many of the interviewees.

However, perhaps more subtle was the observation of Kenyan-born Dr. Mary Murimi, who is a professor of nutrition at Texas Tech in the USA. She pointed out that the need for women to be a support at home to children and others often transfers into a work context. Female academics, she noted, will find themselves taking on roles supporting others in their work life and that this is sometimes at the expense of their own professional development. What’s more, this pattern of taking on a supporting role can influence how women in science are perceived. As Mary explained:

…the world of men and outside individuals also look at you as support and sympathize with your many roles and don’t expect you to rise above them. … And sometimes the fact that the external world confirms how we feel means we get comfortable in those roles.

This shared perception of women in a supporting role rather than as leaders may partly explain another common observation, that there are often few women in senior positions. This issue was what led Dr. Mariam Hamisi and a couple of colleagues at the University of Dodoma in Tanzania in 2014 to approach INASP about working together on gender mainstreaming (see more about that here).

And women can be underrepresented at all levels of research. Mary recounted the story of a conference in Ethiopia on infant nutrition a few years ago where the audience was entirely male despite the reality that women are usually much more heavily involved in feeding children than men. Mary said she asked at the time whether men teach women to breastfeed.

Similarly, Sahro Ahmed Koshin recalled a conference about higher education in Somalia where she was the only woman and how she changed her whole presentation in order to address this issue:

I said: ‘What’s happening, we’re leaving half of the community, half of the population, we’re speaking about Somalis and there aren’t many Somalis here, and we’re speaking about Somali women, and it’s very important to have their input as well in knowledge production.

How can we support women in research?

One key question that we asked each interviewee was: how can we support women and girls who are interested in pursuing research? The answers are summarized in a ‘Top tips’ page that we created:

How can women and girls help themselves?

We also asked about advice for women and girls who want to go into research and pulled together another set of ‘Top tips’:

Focusing and time management were important themes running through all the interviews. A practical piece of advice from Dr. Eli Pradhan, an ophthalmology researcher, consultant, and journal editor in Nepal, is to ensure women are picking fields that they are interested in and then ask for help and support if they need it:

If they are interested but finding it a bit difficult to get the time they can speak with their bosses to provide specific time slots for research.

And the areas of supporting and support are interwoven, as Kenyan doctor Dr. Barbara Burmen summed up:

Develop a supportive network both at work and at home; be willing to ask for and accept help both at home and in the workplace. Find time to mentor others and always know in the back of your mind that you are an inspiration to other women (and men alike) who are known or unknown to you. Above all, be exceptional at what you do, and your gender will not matter!

The full set of interviews can be found here.

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