7 January 2014

Africa: Gender Equality Should Be Part of Basic Science Training

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There are other ways of promoting visibility. Women can ensure they get proper credit for their work by having conversations about publication authorship (an important determinant of career progression) and agreeing ahead of time the terms of how contributions to publications will be assessed and recognised.

In addition, academic departments need to provide ways for women trainee scientists to access what they need to be successful, including networks and mentors.

Similarly, employers need to make such opportunities available through formal training programmes as well as access to important assignments.

Why it matters

A growing body of research documents the need to include gender considerations in research. There are many instances where sex or gender analysis has led to research or design breakthroughs. [2]

Women's input and gender perspectives can also inform the implications of research and its applications, such as how costs and benefits are distributed.

Other research points out the value of varied perspectives in promoting innovation. Education and training institutions would do well to consider the merits of diverse research teams, not just to address equal opportunity, but also to do quality work.

A gender lens and gendered perspectives are also needed in other industries and institutions. When considering medicine doses, 'standard' heights for stair railings and seat belt design, one size does not fit all. This principle needs to be extended to science.

How to be inclusive

Considering the value that scientists place on objectivity and the avoidance of bias, there should be no tolerance for gender inequalities.

This is the case for both women and men - in many instances, men are important allies in promoting an inclusive science community.

Associations and academies need to lead by example, working at every level to bring women into the mainstream of science and technology.

More effort is needed to tap into the networks where women may be active, to appoint them to committees and to provide them with opportunities to present their work.

But everyone has a role in communicating the disadvantages women face in a system that was built, and is still being built, for the patterns and characteristics of men's lives.

This brings us back to architecture.

In public buildings, it is expected that the space will be used by equal numbers of men and women. But architectural codes, in recognition of biological differences, call for many more stalls to be included in women's toilet facilities. Providing equal numbers is not the same as being equitable.

By implication, achieving gender equality sometimes requires making equitable provisions to support quality science.

The accepted approach of asking women in science to operate in a frame of norms defined by men needs to be re-examined. Equitable behaviour and considerations need to be made a clear part of what it means to be a scientist.

Shirley Malcom is head of the directorate for education and human resources programmes at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

She is also co-chair of the gender advisory board at the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development and the global GenderInSITE (Gender in Science, Innovation, Technology and Engineering) campaign.


[1] Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and others Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012)

[2] Innovation through Gender expert group Gendered innovations: How gender analysis contributes to research (European Commission, 2013)

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