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