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Friday, March 5, 2021
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Women Take Longer To Finish Their PhD Studies, Publish Less

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, according to the findings of a peer-reviewed paper published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

As in other regions, women’s representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has grown over time in Africa.

Still, only 30% of STEM researchers in Africa are women, which is roughly the same as the global average of 28%.

The paper, “Making it to the PhD: Gender and student performance in Sub-Saharan Africa”, was based on a study by four researchers, including Monica Fisher, Moses Osiru and Violet Nyabaro at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Nairobi, Kenya.

The other contributor was Ruth Mendum from Pennsylvania State University in the US.

The study was prepared to inform the preparation of a gender strategy for the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF), a Pan African science, technology and innovation initiative owned and led by African governments in partnership with the World Bank and the government of Korea through the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology.

One of RSIF’s major objectives is to correct imbalances in the number of women and disadvantaged groups in the fields of applied sciences, engineering and technology in Africa.

RSIF also aims to build African university capacity to provide relevant training in these fields and to ensure continued investment in the scaling up of the education and workforce in applied sciences, engineering and technology.

The study was conducted among 227 alumni of major STEM PhD programmes in 17 African countries: Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

In this study, STEM includes formal and natural sciences and the social sciences, specifically economics and psychology, both of which are critical to understanding applied issues such as food and nutritional security.

The factors positively associated with the publication output of women and men include having an excellent research opportunity (working on cutting-edge research or with a prestigious faculty member), having a PhD supervisor who provided regular professional guidance and was supportive of one’s goals, participating in a scientific writing course, and completing the PhD in Southern Africa compared to East and West Africa.

The study findings suggest that having a female supervisor, attending an institution with gender policies in place, and pursuing the PhD in a department in which sexual harassment by faculty is perceived as uncommon are enabling factors for women’s timely completion of their doctoral studies.

Juggling work and home

According to the paper, women who pursue careers and embark on PhD training face consequences for their work productivity when they get married and have children.

These life events associate to fewer publications and slow the completion rate of their studies – something that does not equally apply to men.

This is unsurprising, given that women often assume greater household and child-rearing responsibilities.

The report acknowledges that it is difficult to have a career in science without regularly publishing. So, if marriage lowers women’s ability to publish during their PhD studies, there is no reason to think that would change upon graduation.

“This means that, if getting married reduces a woman’s tendency to publish, that challenge is ongoing and likely has long-term implications for a woman’s career in STEM.

“Of course, women can have it all, but having a STEM career and being a wife and mother is challenging,” said Fisher, one of the researchers.

The role of supervision

A puzzling result is that excellent supervision, which was defined as having a supervisor who provided regular professional guidance and moral support, had a stronger impact for men than for women.

Specifically, having an excellent supervisor “associated to a 200% increase in men’s publication output but had a negligible (6%) impact on women’s publication output”.

“It may be the case that PhD supervisors push men students harder than women students to publish if they subscribe to the gender stereotype that women are less capable than men in scientific fields,” says the report.

Osiru, another of the study’s researchers, said that, at present, most supervisors are men, which implies that, if more women pursue careers in science, it will grow the number of female supervisors, further benefiting other women in future.

Having a woman supervisor reduced the time to PhD completion by 18% for sampled women alumni.

Female supervisors can serve as important role models for women students, help counteract negative gender stereotypes that are pervasive in STEM, and provide students with a more favourable mentoring experience.

Self-efficacy in STEM

The authors pointed to empirical studies suggesting gender differences in thoroughness, cautiousness, and self-efficacy, and hypothesised that these attributes might partly explain why the impact of good supervision on publication output is less felt by women than men.

Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s capability to succeed in a domain.

The study measured self-efficacy by first asking the survey respondents how much the following factors mattered to the success of a PhD student in their discipline: intelligence or talent, educational preparation, hard work, networks (who you know or work with), and luck (for instance, landing opportunities simply by being in the right place at the right time).

Respondents were then asked to indicate on a five-point Likert scale the degree to which they had what it takes to be successful.

Among the sample of PhD alumni studied, 100% of men agreed or strongly agreed that they had what it took to be successful, compared with only 40% of women.

The authors posited that lower self-efficacy may, in turn, make women more hesitant than men to submit their papers for evaluation.

Testing this hypothesis was not part of this study but was suggested by the authors for future research.


Two priority interventions emerge from the findings: family-friendly policies and facilities that are supportive of women’s roles as wives and mothers; and fostering broader linkages and networks for women in STEM, including ensuring mentoring and supervisory support tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.

For example, the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa covers the full costs of women doctoral fellows who are breastfeeding mothers to bring their child and a babysitter along for a month-long residential training seminar.

The programme also allows fellows to stop the funding clock during their maternity leave, if they request it, with funding resuming upon their return to doctoral studies.

Also, in Senegal, a national programme “Case des Tout-Petits” helps to ensure affordable and adequate childcare for children aged 0-6 years.

These community-managed childcare facilities originally targeted rural localities and lower-income populations but have expanded to include universities, among others.

The University of Gaston Berger in St Louis, Senegal, one of the institutions included in the study, has a childcare facility on campus.

“Facilitating an environment for women to expand their networks and engage with women role models or mentors can greatly increase women’s sense of belonging and their interest to continue their education and career transition in STEM fields, which are largely male-dominated,” says the article.

There is a need to make women’s contributions more visible and normalise diversity in science, for example, by sponsoring women doctoral candidates to attend and present at conferences where women in science are key speakers.

The report also recommends a diversity of role models for women with STEM careers, which is important because scientific careers are demanding and the choice to reduce one’s family obligations in order to focus on one’s primary interest should at least be part of the conversation about women’s lives.


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