Equipping East African women for leadership and career growth in science

The Gender & Diversity Program (G&D) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) today announced the first 11 awardees of a new fellowship programme for women crop scientists working in national research institutes and universities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The programme is supported by The Rockefeller Foundation and implemented by G&D.

"The fellowship supports professional growth in both scientific expertise and people management, facilitating development of female science leaders and strengthening their institutions," said Ms Vicki Wilde, G&D Program Leader.

For each awardee, this two-year fellowship offers: - a two-year mentoring relationship with a senior scientist in her field; - funds to present her research at a major scientific conference each year; - development of team management and leadership skills through participation in the CGIAR's women's leadership and negotiations courses;  - improved access to knowledge and support via linkages to regional and global networks of women scientists and researchers; and - mentoring opportunities to junior women scientists in her institute during the second year of her fellowship

Promoting gender equality

The fellowships directly contribute to the Millennium Development Goal to promote gender equality and empower women. Representative African female researchers involved in developing the fellowship programme tabled three major constraints to the advancement of women in science: (1) women tend to be less assertive than men due to cultural norms, and so women's voices are often missed; (2) women tend to be less flexible than men due to family demands and obligations, so women are often overlooked for promotions; and, (3) men tend to prefer male managers, thereby limiting opportunities for women moving into management positions.

G&D offers an innovative series of world-class career development programmes looking at the implications of these factors in leadership development and responding to each in affirmative and effective ways.

According to a report entitled 'Strangers in a Strange Land': A Literature Review of Women in Science , the number of women in science worldwide has increased dramatically in the past two decades. However, research consistently documents disproportionately low numbers of women in senior scientific and leadership positions. The report continues: "While great strides have been made to counter overt discrimination against women in science, clearly there are still informal barriers to success for women scientists. Taken together, these barriers have major effects on women scientists' careers."

And there is a high wastage of women in science. A paper entitled Male and Female CGIAR Scientists in Comparative Perspective refers to what has been termed as 'the leaky pipeline': so many women drop out of science as one moves up the ladder, and those who remain are less likely to find good employment in comparison to men, even if they advance to a PhD.

Two Swedish researchers, Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold, had to invoke Sweden's Freedom of Press Act to obtain data which demonstrated an anti-female bias in post-doctoral fellowships awarded by the Swedish Medical Council. The researchers established that to receive a competence score at par with their male colleagues, female applicants had to be two-and-a-half times better.

Mary Frank Fox also reported a study where summaries of PhD holders were sent to psychology chairpersons in USA. Female names were randomly assigned to some of the summaries, with the rest retaining male names. Asked to make hypothetical hiring decisions and assign academic rank on the basis of the summaries, most chairs recommended the rank of associate professor for the summaries with male names, and assistant professor for the same summaries identified with a female name.

Clearly, even in the most progressive countries, the playing field is uneven. Yet, despite the odds, more and more undeterred women are studying science, especially biological sciences.

"Without more women scientists and leaders, we are in danger of missing a significant opportunity to leverage the diverse perspectives necessary to address the challenges of poverty and hunger," cautioned Ms Wilde.

She added, "For success in agriculture, it is essential that we encourage and support the scientific careers of those closest to the issues of poverty, hunger and environmental degradation-women from developing countries."

The 11 winners of the G&D-Rockefeller fellowships were selected on the basis of their scientific achievement and leadership potential.

From a pool of over a hundred applications, selection was done by a Steering Committee composed of representatives from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, the Ford Foundation and G&D.

This pilot fellowship programme will contribute to institutional understanding about the contributions of, and constraints faced by, women scientists in the fight against hunger, poverty and environmental degradation in Africa. Ultimately, this will enhance and increase research on improving livelihoods and the environment through agricultural innovations.

"The two-year fellowship is designed to support professional growth, and to help ensure continued development and advancement of female leaders in agricultural science for East Africa," said Peter Matlon, Director of The Rockefeller Foundation's Africa Regional Program. "Congratulations to this year's winners, and to G&D for launching such an innovative and much needed programme."

And what did some of the winners have to say about their work?

"I would like to see more research in African indigenous foods," affirmed Mary Onyango, a university lecturer from Kenya. "My purpose in life is to serve and help communities. We must translate our research findings into development."

"Smallholder farmers are my main concern" said Rose Mongi, a Breeder from Tanzania. "One of my interests is to work on the so-called 'small' crops which are generally neglected in the international scenario."

Jenipher Bisikwa, a university lecturer from Uganda, observes, "When you look at hunger and poverty, it overwhelms and overshadows you. But how do you eat an elephant? A bite at a time. I believe in having an impact. I see hunger and poverty and I'm aware that I cannot solve the problem alone, but I can contribute to solving the problem."

The next selection will be in 2006. For a list of the 2005 fellowship winners, their research and their goals, see: http://www.genderdiversity.cgiar.org/resource/women_fellowships.asp


September 2005