2 October 2012

Cameroon: Yes, Ladies, Mathematicians Get Husbands Too

Yaoundé — According to official figures, females represent only 15 percent of the students in scientific fields at Cameroon's tertiary schools and universities. What's more, most of them avoid the so-called pure sciences like mathematics. Instead, they pursue seemingly more accessible fields such as chemistry, biochemistry, earth and environmental sciences. Why? Fear of not being an eligible bachelorette is just one of several reasons.

Twenty-year-old Marcelle Akiémé holds a Bachelor's degree in mathematics. Yet when filling in her registration form for an advanced degree at the University of Yaoundé I, she hesitated. What should she pursue in graduate school?

"I received advice from older people who explained the advantages of various fields. I was told, for example, not to be afraid of maths," says Akiémé. After thinking it through, she selected chemistry. "With that degree, I can go either into the food and agriculture industry or nursing studies," she explains.

Some might consider Akiémé's choice strategic; others would say she was discouraged by fear. "I was not sure I would be able to cope with mathematics," she admits. "I didn't want to have to register in another field after realizing that I wasn't getting good grades."

No PhD, no future?

Mariama Mondé's choice to register for biochemistry was in part guided by the degree's duration. "When one studies maths or physics in Cameroon, one needs to get at least a PhD," she explains. "Otherwise, there are very few opportunities in our country. Moreover, one has to sacrifice everything because there is no time for social life."

According to Cécile Christelle Sadet, some women with Bachelor's degrees in science even end up following a different trajectory altogether, such as literature. Sadet is not a student of literature herself, although she followed up her Bachelor's degree in science with a Master's in earth sciences.

And that's not the only thing keeping her at university. Sadet is also involved in awareness-raising among young women. Throughout the day, she fields questions such as: Where should I apply? What are the chances of finding employment in any given field? Can a girl succeed in the sciences? And, last but not least: do women studying maths find husbands as easily as those studying literature? It is commonly said that they do not because they are too busy to make themselves look pretty.

Husbands for mathematicians, too?

"By sharing my successful experience with other young women, they can see that there is no field of study exclusive to males. Nor is studying sciences incompatible with love life," Sadet says. She herself has a boyfriend and seems to find time to take care of her appearance despite a very busy timetable.

While Sadet reassures the young women of their powers of attraction, Franklin Ovono Etémé, who has a degree in maths, has overseen the academic progress. "In my last year, we were 300 students and only 25 were female. Paradoxically, the females got better grades than the males. I use this example to explain to the young women that they should not be afraid of studying maths or physics, for example," he explains.

It is still early to tell whether the awareness-raising is having positive results. Some supporters are optimistic. "We cannot change mentalities in one day," says Etémé. "I think this education effort will progressively have a positive impact on the opinion young women have of themselves."

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