Gender equality in Africa: “We have to empower ourselves”

Women and science: Two African researchers talk about unconventional career paths, the peculiarities of the continent and their fighting spirit in our interview.

Professor Mekonnen, you made your way “from a tiny meek girl in a small town” to a big figure in the academic world, as somebody once described it. What has helped you on this way?

Yalemtsehay Mekonnen: I think I was lucky because I had the chance to go to school. My parents were able to provide me with the basic needs and motivated me all the time. Moreover, I am a person who wants to excel, I want to do the best wherever I can and I work hard for it. I was always interested in learning; this has always been my passion and still is.

There is a desperate effort to increase the number of female researchers, not only in Ethiopia, but also in other parts of Africa and the world. What support do women need to pursue an academic career and what contribution can the state, the academic system, mentors and the family make?

Mekonnen: Yes, despite the efforts, there is still a gap in academia. There are only a few women who make it to the highest level of an academic career, that is leading research projects and being awarded full professorship positions. Women shoulder responsibilities from the home to the workplace. Governments have to implement policies that help female researchers engage in research by providing them with specific support packages. For example, extended maternity leave and the opportunity to work from home. In Ethiopia’s higher education system, there are some policies that favour female researchers. Although there is progress in supporting women, there is still a lot to be done.

You did your PhD abroad and left your husband and children in Ethiopia. Looking back on that tough decision – was it worth it and what did it change for you?

Mekonnen: When I look back it was indeed a tough decision. Without the support of my husband and family, it would have been unthinkable to come to Germany and do my PhD in Heidelberg. It was a big move I made in my life. Lucky me, it was worth it! The lesson I learned from this decision is: if you want to do something, go for it. Do not hesitate. But think twice before you decide. The decision should not be made in a rush.

Professor Yalemtsehay Mekonnen

64 years old, from Ethiopia, East Africa

Field of research: Physiology

Yalemtsehay Mekonnen has been sponsored by a Georg Forster Research Fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. She is forming president of the Humboldt Alumni Club in Ethiopia. Since 2016 she acts as the Foundation's Ambassador Scientist in Ethiopia. She received a Humboldt Alumni Award for Innovative Networking Initiatives in 2018 for her project “Creating a network of female academics and researchers in Ethiopia”.

Professor Fogwe Chibaka, you stand up for equal rights because, you said, as a mother and wife, you often had to make compromises. Is this a structural issue in African countries?

Evelyn Fogwe Chibaka: Yes. There are sociocultural and traditional problems that affect women in general. For example, if a woman is engaged in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, many people look at her like: you are out of place! There are also marital constraints: if you are a married mother, you do not only have to take care of your children, but also your husband. That is what the African society expects from you. So, if you want to be seriously engaged in research as a woman, you have to put in a lot more effort than men.

What has to change?

Fogwe Chibaka: In order to bring about a significant change and make an impact on the development of women in science, three different levels have to be taken care of.

First, on an individual level, we have to start with us, the women. We have to change our mindset. We have to determine what we want as individuals. We need to understand that we do not belong where society is placing us. We can do much better! So, firstly, we have to empower ourselves.

Secondly, on the marital level, we have to apply wisdom and diplomacy. We should not forget that society has its norms and traditions. If we can prove that we can manage the housework, childcare and still work productively in research, this will motivate society to question some cultural and traditional norms.

The third strategy is to call for change at the governmental level. It is not enough just to encourage more women to be involved in science and research. We need an equal enabling environment and career opportunities for women and men.

Professor Evelyn Fogwe Chibaka

54 years old, from Cameroon, West Africa

Field of Research: Linguistics

Evelyn Fogwe Chibaka has been sponsored by a Georg Forster Research Fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. In January 2019, she organised a Humboldt Kolleg in Yaoundé on the subject of “Mindset change and empowerment of professional Cameroonian women for development” with the subsequent foundation of the platform “Cameroon Professional Research Oriented Women” (CaPROW) Association. In 2020, CaPROW has received a Humboldt Alumni Award for Innovative Networking Initiatives.

Last year, you organised a Humboldt Kolleg in Yaoundé on “Mindset change and empowerment of professional Cameroonian women for development”. What input can academia give in favour of more gender equality in Cameroon and other African countries?

Fogwe Chibaka: With regards to postdoctoral researchers, it is not only about a change in mindset. The lack of financial support is one of the major obstacles to increasing the number of women in science. You require good funding to become a researcher. Of course, women themselves can search for possible funders and put forward very competitive proposals for their research projects. But often, due to the financial situation here, access to grants is limited. So, the government should collaborate with other nations and international organisations that are willing to support women in science. This platform would help many women to fulfil their aspirations as researchers.

Professor Mekonnen, you once said that your father always told you and your siblings “You can do it!”. How can girls in general get the support they need?

Mekonnen: Family support is very important. Irrespective of their resources or social status, families have great responsibilities to properly bring up their children. The challenge for poor families is how to feed their children and still motivate their children effectively. I know girls who come from poor families that have become successful. Governments should be able to give support to those coming from poor families. The fundamental issue for a woman is to have the opportunity to go to school. If a woman wants a career, she should work hard, be optimistic and have a positive attitude. As the saying goes, “Success is built on failure”. Life is not a straight line. Women should not give up.

Professor Fogwe Chibaka, you stated women have to work especially hard to hold their own. You said that in Cameroon, many of your male colleagues think that women are generally not as good in science and that in Germany it’s different. Can academic exchange change that issue?

Fogwe Chibaka: Yes, and you can actually already see a positive influence. Organisations like the DAAD have already supported thousands of women; e.g. in doing their PhD, just like me. Also, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation offers a very supportive system. With its help and that of the Volkswagen Foundation, the DoBeS programme*, I could do my postdoctorate as well as four long term research projects in Germany. This way, I was able to bring many female junior scientists with me who improved their research profiles and produced many publications. The time in Germany did not only expose us to academic advantages and a new culture, but also enabled us to interact and network with many colleagues and experts in the diaspora.

Professor Mekonnen, you are committed to networking and mentoring others, e.g. as founder of the first Ethiopian Society of Women in Science and Technology or Ambassador Scientist of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Ethiopia. What advice do you give others when it comes to networking?

Mekonnen: Take all opportunities that come your way and use them in the best way you can! Not to be shy, but to talk about yourself humbly and also to show interest in others and try to find a common interest to work on. In academia, no one does research alone or only in their subject area. Therefore, networking has a great advantage.

Professor Fogwe Chibaka, following the Humboldt Kolleg, you have subsequently founded the platform “Cameroon Professional Research Oriented Women” (CaPROW) Association. What can networks like this do to structurally support women?

Fogwe Chibaka: On the one hand, people can meet physically: at conferences, training sessions, workshops or seminars. This gives women a good platform to be empowered, exchange knowledge and technological novelties, and present their work. On the other hand, we can go to virtual conferences, do virtual training workshops or discussions. This way, it is possible for women to collaborate and exchange knowledge with other colleagues in different parts of the world or across disciplines, thus developing their career. That’s what CaPROW can put into place.

What are your plans with CaPROW?

Fogwe Chibaka: We created the association last year with the main goal of developing a sustainable virtual and physical platform that will expose, sensitise, motivate and orientate, as well as generating mentor-mentee relationships and empowering many female junior researchers. As part of it, we will publish a biennial book series with the articles of female scientists from Cameroon. The first book is ready to be published. And with regards to networking, we will form a platform for discourse and training on particular skills, i.e. project management techniques, internet tools and their appropriate applications, as well as empowering them on how to produce very competitive research proposals that will meet international standards. We will train them on how to collect and analyse digital data. And we will encourage them to have affiliations with ongoing digital research projects from Cameroon and other countries. This way, we hope that we can increase the number of women involved in science. I am very humbled to announce that CaPROW has received a Humboldt Alumni Award for Innovative Networking Initiatives 2020! This will adequately foster our vision and mission for CaPROW Networking (CaPROWN) activities.

When looking at all these aspects with regards to the digitalisation you just mentioned. What would you say: how does this change women’s ways and opportunities into an academic career – especially in African countries?

Fogwe Chibaka: Knowledge is power. In virtual networks, women can exchange ideas and get answers to their questions. Digitalisation exposes these women into trendy data collection, analysis, processing, publishing, archiving techniques and appropriate research infrastructures. Also, a digitalised working environment helps them to access information that is relevant for funding.

Interview: Hendrik Bensch

* DoBeS is a program for the Documentation of Endangered Languages.

Comment below!

Are you also a researcher? What challenges have you encountered in your career? In your opinion, how can female early career researchers and gender equality be promoted? Let us know in the comments below.

May 2020

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