Africa’s women in science
Women scientists have a critical role to play in Africa’s development, including pushing the
envelope on gender equality, one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As many
young women pursuing careers in science are all too aware, persisting gender inequality
often severely limits them from achieving their potential and effectively contributing to
Although significant progress has been made globally in closing the gender gap in primary
school enrolment, gender inequality prevails elsewhere. This includes in science, where
women remain heavily underrepresented. Recent data from UNESCO indicates that only
28% of researchers employed in research and development (R&D) globally are women. This
level varies across regions.
In 2013, women researchers employed in R&D exceeded the global average in Central Asia
(47%), Latin America and the Caribbean (44%), Central and Eastern Europe (40%), Arab
States (37%) and North America and Western Europe (32%) and Sub-Saharan Africa (30%),
while the proportion of women researchers employed in R&D was much lower in South and
West Asia (19%) and East Asia and the Pacific (23%).
Major gender disparities between women and men research scientists are also evident in
places of work and in their levels of responsibility. Women scientists primarily work in
academic and government institutions, while their male counterparts are engaged more in
the private sector, where they enjoy better pay and opportunities (UNESCO Institute for
Statistics, 2015). In addition, women scientists are often concentrated in the lower echelons
of responsibility and decision-making with limited leadership opportunities. In academia, for
example, women scientists are often lecturers and assistant researchers and very few are
professors, while in research institutions, women are rarely research directors or principal
investigators in major studies.
Indeed, women’s underrepresentation in science not only has consequences for
development, but also for research. In the area of infectious diseases of poverty, for
example, the dearth of women scientists often means a lack of diverse perspectives
essential to addressing gender dimensions and the burden of infectious diseases, which
often disproportionately affect women. Moreover, with few women occupying decision-
making positions in academic and research institutions, their scientific role in prioritizing
research agendas is severely circumscribed. This has potentially adverse implications for
addressing and eliminating infectious diseases.