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A woefully low proportion of members of the world's learned bodies and science academies are women.
A report  published by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) in collaboration with the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) and launched on 29 February puts the figure at 12 per cent, measured across 69 national academies, including 11 in Africa: Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
Among the African academies that participated in the survey, the mean proportion of women members was even lower — ten per cent. However, the tally varied widely between individual academies.
The ASSAf’s 24 per cent makes it one of the most women-friendly academies in the world, but at four per cent women, Tanzania’s Academy of Sciences shares the last place globally with Poland.
The report recommends ways academies should promote greater gender parity among members. These include collecting annual data on women membership and establishing permanent structures to promote the role of women — not just within the academy but also more broadly across science, technology and innovation.
“One thing is certain: The problem is not that there aren’t enough women scientists.”
However, many of Africa's (mostly underfunded) academies will struggle to implement these recommendation, even if their leaders should want to. Better support for academies, and for research more widely, is therefore crucial to achieving better gender balance in African science.
Dearth of women scientists?
One thing is certain: The problem is not that there aren’t enough women scientists. Across the world, the proportion of women in science generally is vastly bigger than the proportion of women on the academies. So why is that?
Many blame childcare and family responsibilities for the dearth of women that reach the highest echelons of academic institutions.
But is that really all that there is to it? In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Royal Society has six per cent women members, while women, according to Nature , hold 18 per cent of the country’s professorships. The picture is more or less the same all across Europe.
In Africa, it is difficult to find data on the numbers of professorships held by women. However, the disparity between the ratio between men and women scientists generally, and that found in the academies, mirrors the trends found in Europe and elsewhere.
For instance, Ugandan women make up 24 per cent of the country's scientists overall.
However, women only make up 13 per cent of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences' members. And in South Africa there is near-parity between men and women in research jobs across the board. Against that background 24 per cent women in the academy is “not a number to be proud of”, said Daya Reddy, president of ASSAf, at the report’s launch in Hermanus, South Africa.
Why low women membership
So what else is holding back women from attaining academy membership? Is there something a bit conservative and patriarchal about the academy as an institution?
Given that the seeds of the national academies we have today were planted several hundred years ago, when women were excluded from most spheres of public life, there may be a grain of truth in this. Moreover, most academies’ focus on rewarding ‘excellence’ may unintentionally skew membership against women.
“But the problem is getting on the first step of the ladder — and that's the problem for women getting into academies too.”
Tonya Blowers, OWSD
For, what constitutes excellence? And does the ‘system’ give equal chances to attain it for women as for men?
Tonya Blowers, coordinator of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) based in Trieste, Italy, says the system favours men. She likens the situation to getting on the property ladder in an expensive city.
“Winning a prize will give you points that can be used towards getting another prize. It's much like the housing ladder in London. Once you've bought your own house, you can sell it and buy another,” she says. “You can keep moving up and up that ladder. But the problem is getting on the first step of the ladder — and that's the problem for women getting into academies too.”
Improving gender balance
However, some academies have managed to improve their gender balance through targeted action. South and Central American academies were among the most gender-balanced academies in the world.
The Brazilian Academy of Sciences has a working group on women in science. The Cuban Academy of Sciences, which at 27 per cent has the highest proportion of women in the world, has had such a body since 1999. These don’t just promote women entering the academy, but also promote women in science more broadly.
What is needed is more support for Africa’s academies. There is no doubt that academies play an important role in representing the scientific community to governments, and presenting them with advice on scientific matters. Therefore, African governments should support their academies. It does not have to be much — just enough to staff a secretariat and manage the academy’s activities.
Even simply establishing a network of women scientists would be a step in the right direction towards recognising women’s scientific contributions. Such networks would provide up-and-coming women with role models and support, perhaps helping them onto that crucial first rung of the ladder.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.
 Women for science: inclusion and participation in academies of science (Academy of Science of South Africa [ASSAf], October 2015)
 Elizabeth Gibney Women under-represented in world’s science academies (Nature, 29 February 2016)