The challenges that women in academia face daily are numerous and formidable in even the most welcoming of disciplines. But obstacles in traditionally male-dominated fields like the Mathematical Sciences, where women are still vastly underrepresented, are even more daunting.
Beating out every other geographical region, Africa has the highest proportion of female graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) disciplines, making up some 47% of graduates, found UNESCO’s 2022 Global Education Monitoring Report. Yet women are still outnumbered at student and academic staff levels on the continent, says the report.
What is more, African universities lagged in the development and implementation of gender policies, as well as in the provision of scholarships and mentoring schemes for women.
It is out of this context that the Women Advancement Forum: International Exchanges, Research & Academia (WAFIRA) was launched as a capacity building programme in West Africa in 2014. The organisation last week hosted a two-day workshop from 29-30 March 2023 on ‘Advancing Women in Mathematical Sciences’ at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Some 27 young women in postgraduate studies in the discipline took part in the meeting.
Day 1 of the WAFIRA workshop began with introductory remarks from Prof Burtram Fielding, UWC Dean of the Faculty of Natural Science; and Dr Ulrich Paquet, Director of AIMS South Africa. Prof Fielding noted the challenges of the under-representation of women in leadership positions in academia and indicated his strong support for women's advancement at UWC. He encouraged the attendees to overcome the challenges they face and aspire to become academic leaders by finding a mentor.
Dr Paquet elaborated on the divergent levels of women's representation in STEM across the 30 African countries, based on experience from Deep Learning Indaba’s IndabaX programme. He suggested that a critical factor that accented to the wide variation was the presence of a group of women in STEM who work tirelessly to grow a community of female researchers in their countries. Strong communities don’t form on their own; they need to be nurtured and taken care of by a committed group of people. Across Africa, the women who go “above and beyond” in their commitment are the “key ingredients” for strong communities. He suggested that this created a very powerful rationale for a programme such as WAFIRA.
The event marked the first time since its launch that a WAFIRA workshop was held in southern Africa, following meetings in the likes of Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. The workshop was staged in collaboration with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS South Africa) and African Gong, aka the Pan-African Network for the Popularisation of Science & Technology and Science Communication in Africa.
“A lot of work is being done to get young African women into universities, and there is a certain amount of support for women further down the academic line,” explained Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala, president of African Gong. “But what happens in the middle – with women in postgraduate studies – can predetermine the outcomes for women in their later careers in academia.”
With this in mind, the workshop covered themes such as mentoring, the transforming of institutional frameworks and socio-cultural contexts, as well as science communication skills and the elusive work-life balance.
Keeping women in academia remains a major concern in universities, as Dr Omowunmi Isafiade, a senior lecturer in Computer Science at UWC, has found when asking young women in her classes if they would consider such a career path. Most say no, reported Isafiade. “The mindset is that it is a difficult ladder to climb.”
“The question we’re all struggling with is how do we retain women in Mathematical Sciences so that they can pursue such a career and stay on the academic track?” added Dr Rejoyce Gavhi-Molefe, AIMS South Africa House of Science Manager. “And the answer is that we need to create a conducive environment to capacitate, support and empower them.”
For the young postgraduate students in the workshop, the WAFIRA workshop is one step in the right direction. “I think it’s very empowering to find yourself in a culturally diverse room of women who want to advance and transform the field,” said Ms Annah Lefakgomo, master’s student in population studies. “The workshop created a safe space in that you’re in a room with other women who are willing to listen to you, and are open and understanding to you making mistakes,” added Ms Jessica Randall, a master’s student in maths.
So keen was Ms Patience Onowode, a doctoral student in linguistics, on the opportunity that she gate-crashed the event when she spotted a workshop flyer on campus. “We found in the room that we all had very similar experiences, that we maybe lacked the confidence or the necessary communication skills, and the workshop aimed to capacitate us in those areas,” said Onowode. “So I’m very happy that I came and asked if I could join the workshop.”