Q&A: Closing the gender gap

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Prudence Mutowo, winner of a 2006 L’Oreal UNESCO fellowship, speaks to SciDev.Net about her experiences as a woman in science.

Prudence Mutowo, a PhD candidate in molecular biology at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, won a L’Oreal UNESCO fellowship in 2006. Brought up in Zimbabwe, she believes that science is vital to Africa’s development and would like to see a closing of the gender gap that sees women accounting for only 29 per cent of African researchers.

She speaks to Laura McGuinness about her experiences, and the challenges of being a woman in science.

Where did your love of science come from? Did you find that, being female, you were encouraged or deterred from studying science?

It was the life force in biology that initially interested me, looking at plants and animals and trying to understand how they work. My brother and I used to perform mini-dissections on dead locusts during the school holidays and try to work out where their different organs were. I enjoyed learning about these things in the classroom and the more I studied, the more I was able to relate that knowledge to nature.

I wanted to go into science primarily because people said I couldn’t. By the time I got to school-leaving age, I found that I came across people saying, "Women don’t really go into science, why don’t you study history or languages?"

Have you experienced a better attitude towards women in science since you have been living in the United Kingdom?

The thing I’ve come across most is not that people tell you outright you can’t do it, but that it isn’t made particularly easy. For example, I’m about to start a postdoctorate, and a lot of the questions that come up in interviews are about how, being of child-bearing age, I would manage being a mother and a scientist.

I wouldn’t want to sacrifice one for the other, nor do a half job on either, so it is difficult. The nature of science means there is a lack of security and a lack of certainty, and if you go on maternity leave it is unlikely that anybody will be able to cover your position, the work will just have to be put on hold. People ask why don’t I just get a normal job, a regular nine till five, where I’m assured of a salary and maternity leave should I want it.

What has the L’Oreal UNESCO fellowship award meant to you, and have you found the experience valuable?

It has been absolutely brilliant. At the end of the first year [of my PhD] I needed to find funding to be able to continue. That is when I applied for the fellowship, which paid for my tuition fees.

But it’s not just the money — the networking has been amazing. It introduces you to other award winners across the world. In day-to-day science you only really come across the people in your lab, and it is really quite difficult to make contacts.

At the Women in Science week that the L’Oreal Foundation runs annually in Paris, the Laureates — women who have made an impact in science — are available for you to go and ask questions. It helps especially that they are women, who may have had to make similar decisions to you. You can really use them as a reference point.

Role models have also been a key component of the African Women in Science and Technology’s agenda. How important do you feel it is for girls to have role models? Was there any particular female scientist who inspired you when you were at school?

It’s absolutely key for girls to have role models. There was a female professor named Idah Sithole-Niang in the department of biochemistry at the University of Zimbabwe, which I attended. She was one of the only female professors and when I saw her name on my lecture list, I was inspired. I ended up in her project group, working in her lab.

Since I have been an award winner, I have had many emails from young girls asking how I did this, and how I overcame certain obstacles. I wouldn’t call myself a role model, but a point of contact definitely, and I hope that I can encourage people.

According to statistics published by UNESCO in 2006, women make up only 27 per cent of scientific researchers worldwide. The L’Oreal foundation are trying to get more girls into science by increasing public awareness of the gender gap, and opening up laboratories to encourage interaction with young people. Do you feel that these steps will be successful, and would you like to be involved in this kind of project in the future?

I definitely think that it’s a starting point. I was invited, courtesy of L’Oreal, to the Women’s conference in Paris in 2006. Here I was part of a project called ‘Sci-Tech Girls,’ where we worked with a group of girls aged 13–15 years. They were at ages where they were making up their minds about the subjects they wanted to study, and were able to ask us any questions they wanted about being a scientist.

Looking back, I wish that there was something like that available to me when I decided to study science. Science isn’t really cool within peer groups is it?

I think you need to start changing attitudes at a young age. In kid’s books, the pictures of doctors and botanists are usually male. I believe you need to neutralise these stereotypical roles in young minds. 

In a recent African Union Conference of African Women in Science and Technology it was decided that more emphasis should be placed on setting up African women’s universities. All-female universities in Asia have proved successful and the Women’s University in Zimbabwe has been open for six years. Do you think that single sex universities are a good idea?

I’m a bit torn on this. I believe that, because we live in a world that is made up of both men and women, there is need for interaction between men and women. I don’t understand the mandate behind single sex universities or schools. A lot of the scientific problems in the world are universal and if solutions are going to arise from scientific advancement then I believe we should be working together.

But I understand that there may be a need to address the gender divide, possibly by implementing things such as single sex programmes.

I went to a single sex girl’s school and then a mixed university. I enjoyed my experience at university more. I encountered the barriers between men and women later and wasn’t prepared for it. Had I been to a mixed school, I might have been exposed to the attitudes against women in science a bit earlier and I could have sharpened my tools a little bit.

Do you intend to return to Zimbabwe with the skills you have learnt when you finish your fellowship, or do you feel that there are better opportunities for continuing your research abroad?

At some point I would like to return. I have experienced the vitality of having African women train elsewhere and then teach at our universities and I have seen that they can impart the knowledge that they have learnt. I would like to be involved in the universities and would also be interested in maybe setting up a lab there.

Even if I don’t return permanently I would like to guest lecture there, or perhaps have a sabbatical and return for a year. I don’t know what the future holds though.