Africa needs to pay more attention to its WILD women (that's women in livestock development)

Female share of the research workforce was about 23%, with only 14% being in management positions

THE International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) put together a Pinterest board in honour of International Women’s Day. Dubbed the “WILD” women, the board celebrated some of the organisation’s favourite women, heroes and partners.

The African contingent was strong and gave a picture of the formidable female forces behind the movement for livestock research on the continent. 

It’s importance cannot be understated. Even though it is women who perform most of the work to produce most of the world’s food, they are insufficiently integrated in livestock research. 

This presents a challenge to national development, which at the moment in Africa is heavily focused on modernising agricultural production, since addressing the needs of these female farmers requires increased participation by female scientists, professors, and senior managers. There is evidence to support this, and it indicates that the participation of both men and women in agriculture research and development leads to better decision outcomes, better performance, creativity and innovation. 

“Leaking Pipeline”

Unfortunately, a survey by the International Diversity Research Centre (IDRC) found that women face several constraints in the workplace that limit them from moving into decision-making positions. There are organisational practices and prejudices, including hiring and incentive systems, which often work against them. 

When looking at female participation in African agricultural research and higher education (2007/8), it found the female share of the research workforce was about 23%, with only 14% being in management positions, showing a participation decline as the women progressed along their career path. 

This decline is so widespread that it even has a nickname, known as “the leaking pipeline” to describe the diminishing participation of women with career advancement in science and technology systems. 

Entry-level

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) says this system is being perpetuated by a currently growing representation of women in entry level positions in agricultural research, and higher education, who are typically younger and therefore often have lower degrees. These means they are by definition therefore overrepresented in lower positions, and underrepresented in management positions, compared with men.

In a 2010 paper by IFPRI, which covered 125 agricultural research and higher education agencies in 15 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, it found that there were fluctuations in the level of female participation in agricultural research and higher education, across the continent, although in some African countries it was plain shocking. 

Particularly poor female representation was found in Ethiopia (6%), Togo (9%), Niger (10%), and BurkinaFaso (12%). The better performing countries, with higher shares of female professional staff were South Africa, Mozambique, and Botswana (32, 35, and 41% respectively). 

Of these women, close to two-thirds of the female professional staff in agricultural sciences were employed in the government sector, 39% were employed in the higher education sector, and only 1% were employed in the non-profit sector.

Maternity leave

The trend is also apparent in higher educations systems. Fewer women have advanced degrees compared to their male colleagues. The IFPRI report, for example, found that 27% of the sample’s professional women held PhD degrees, compared with 37% of the sample’s professional men. 

This low figure for both genders can be attributed to staff shortages, insufficient funding, declining student enrollments, outdated curricula, and a continuing focus on undergraduate studies but in the case of women, there are added challenges of their role within societies and an institutional environment which is supportive of female researchers, such as maternity leave for example. 

Fortunately there are movements towards gender parity. An international research summit focusing on gender is taking place in Africa for the first time, from the 28-30 April, in Cape Town, South Africa. 

Amongst the topics to be addressed is how to increase women participation in science in Africa. One group working towards this end is the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) fellowship programme which aims to fast-track the careers of talented African women scientists. The AWARD programme offers two-year fellowships intended to build capacity in science, mentoring, and leadership among high-performing female African scientists at one the three critical career junctures: completion of their BSc, MSc, or PhD degrees.  


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