8 March 2022
Climbing the higher education ladder isn’t always easy for Africa’s female early-career academics. They’re often hamstrung by a lack of mentoring, research funding, and by balancing work and family life.
This is according to Dr Phyllis Kalele, who recently obtained her doctorate in Science and Technology Studies at Stellenbosch University.
For her doctorate, Kalele established the profile of an African female early-career academic and investigated the mentoring experiences, career outcomes, and challenges of female early-career academics in 25 African countries. She did a secondary analysis of existing data, which researchers had previously collected through questionnaires and interviews as part of the ‘Young Scientists in Africa’ project. Her study is the first of its kind to focus specifically on this group of academics in relation to their characteristics, the extent of the negative impact of various challenges on their careers, whether they received mentoring, and the link between mentoring and their career outcomes.
According to Kalele, little is known about female early-career academics across Africa and even less is known of their mentoring landscape and how mentoring actually works.
She says her study shows that these academics face several career challenges.
“Most of the female early-career academics (social scientists, natural and agricultural scientists, health scientists, and engineering and applied technologists) perceived that lack of mentoring, balancing work and family demands, lack of research funding, lack of funding for research equipment, lack of training opportunities to develop professional skills, and lack of mobility opportunities had negatively impacted their career to at least some extent.
“However, the first three challenges were the most significant in terms of the proportion of female academics that had reported that they had a negative impact on their career.
“Those in the engineering and applied technologies were most likely to report that lack of mentoring had a negative impact on their career, while those in the health sciences were least likely to do so.”
Kalele does point out, however, that the majority of these female academics had received mentoring in the form of introduction to research networks, getting a position/job, research methodology, scientific writing and presentation of research results.
“In contrast, only a minority had received mentoring in making career decisions and fundraising.
“Only half of them had received research funding. In a typical year, they reported spending quite a lot of time on consultancy and very little time on raising research grants. As far as research output is concerned, they produced on average 5,8 articles in peer-reviewed academic journals; 0,3 books; 1,1 book chapters; 3,3 conference-proceedings papers and 5,0 conference presentations over a three-year period.”
Kalele notes that this research output could be better when the key challenges that female early-career academics face are addressed.
According to Kalele, there is a link between 1) receiving mentoring in fundraising and receiving research funding; 2) being introduced by a mentor to his/her research networks, on the one hand, and the mentee’s research output on the other; and 3) being mentored in the form of introduction to research networks and the frequency with which mentees engage in intra-institutional and national collaboration.
Kalele says the female early-career academics were on average 40 years old, had two children or dependents on average, and they undertook the majority of care work and general housework in their family, relationship, or household.
She adds that most female early-career academics were employed permanently as senior lecturers and a large majority of these academics had never studied or worked outside their home country. Lastly, these academics tended to collaborate with researchers at their own institutions.
Kalele states that there are a few things that higher education institutions can do to support female early-career academics.
“Female early-career academics in Africa are a heterogeneous group of individuals, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be used in mentoring efforts that seek to enhance their career outcomes. When higher education institutions design mentoring interventions, they should first consider the characteristics of female academics in Africa that the interventions are supposed to serve.
“Moreover, tertiary institutions in Africa should design and offer mentoring programmes that are specifically targeted at providing mentoring on fundraising, and in the form of introduction to research networks.”
Kalele emphasises that opportunities to receive mentoring in different aspects should be made available to African female early-career academics in Engineering and Applied Sciences, as they are least likely to be mentored. Mentoring should also be part of orientation- and continuous-development programmes for these academics.
She advises that higher education institutions and other organisations that offer research grants should consider providing training to female early-career academics on aspects of fundraising, such as proposal writing and general resource mobilisation strategies, in order to improve their rate of applying for and securing grants.
“Bearing in mind that balancing work and family demands, lack of research funding and lack of mentoring are the three major challenges experienced by female early-career academics as having had a negative impact on their careers, it is imperative that the leadership of tertiary institutions or line managers of these academics are made aware – or reminded – of these challenges.”