3 challenges faced by female researchers in the developing world

Women in STEM talk about how international foundations and editorial boards can support gender equality

Women in STEM main
Hannah Karuri, PhD, Lecturer at the University of Embu, Kenya; Chioma Chikere, PhD, Senior Lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria; and Rabab El-Sherif, PhD, a Professor at Cairo University in Egypt, share their experiences as women in STEM.

Women in STEM have been fighting for equality in the field for years, trying to reach positions of power and have as many opportunities as their male counterparts. While the situation has improved slowly, there are still issues women must struggle with to do research and become part of editorial boards.

We spoke to three female researchers in developing countries:

  • Dr. Chioma Chikere is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. She has won various awards, including 2nd prize in the 2017 Elsevier Foundation Green & Sustainable Chemistry Challenge, and the Third World Organisation for Women in Science (TWOWS) and OWSD Postgraduate Fellowship in 2005.
  • Dr. Hannah Karuri is an editor for the Agriculture and Food Security section of Scientific African. She is also a lecturer at the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Embu, Kenya. She won the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development award in 2014 and a fellowship in the Climate Impact Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement (CIRCLE) program.
  • Dr. Rabab El-Sherif is also an editor for Scientific African, for the Chemistry section, and a Professor of Physical Chemistry on the Faculty of Science of Cairo University in Egypt. She is Co-Chair of the Egyptian Young Academy of Sciences (EYAS). Rabab has published in international journals, presented in more than 50 international conferences and received multiple awards for her work. She is working in collaboration with ENI Company towards renewable energy sources.

Here is what they have to say about being a researcher in the developing world.

1. Stigmas towards women still exist.

Hannah: “Gender bias and discrimination is prevalent in different areas, including publishing in peer reviewed journals. There are some journals where gender determines if your work will be published.”

Chioma: “There is a deeply chauvinistic society where men are in positions of leadership.  Women are not allowed for a position of leadership, and it is hurting research in Africa as women leave and go to Europe, where they are recognized and universities have funds. There is simply no encouragement, although women are more resilient.”

Rabab: “I believe women will prove their skills and high performance in (the) near future since there are now many bright examples of excellent women researchers around the globe. It is also really important to (have) a balance and diversity in editorial boards to give women their chance to prove their excellence in science and in helping to improve of the quality of scientific research.”

2. It’s hard to find a balance.

Rabab: “As a woman in the field of scientific research, I have been subjected to some problems in my career concerning the difficulty to balance family and work, especially that in our work as a scientific researcher and academic university staff member, there is no difference between men and women, we both work with the same manner and schedules, same work hours. So I have to find ways to find balance between my social life and my work, which is not that easy.”

Chioma: “My life became different from the moment I got wedded and I started having children. It has not been easy, but with every opportunity I have as a researcher and mentor, I try to utilize it very well. I don’t wait for a convenient time because, as a mother, I will always be busy, so I do not allow any opportunities to slip by. Last year, I was in the University of South Africa for two months, having won the 2016 TWAS-UNESCO Associateship Fellowship. I had to leave behind my three children and husband, and my mother had to stay with them. It was an opportunity for me to do qualitative research, and I had to act as I was doing my PhD, and this was the only opportunity that I could grab and use for me as a researcher. Unfortunately, there are some conferences that I am not able to attend, but I make sure to have mentees that I have supervised so well that they can work with minimal supervision.”

3. Our universities do not always support us.

Hannah: “So far, I have not faced gender discrimination at my university, but colleagues in other universities have expressed their disappointment at the high levels of discrimination in getting promotions and the types of duties assigned to them. In most instances, women have to work twice as hard as men to get what they want.”

Rabab: “Sometimes, we face certain types of discrimination as women in science. For instance, the position of president of a university is usually given to a male until now – women did not achieve this position. Also, some supervisors prefer working with male researchers rather than women; they found men more professional – which in my opinion is totally wrong.”

Chioma: “International organizations should give more research grants to women, give them more access to funding. Women should be encouraged to apply and form groups with connections to be heard and have themselves be recognized. It is important to stick up for yourself and be heard in order to create an international footprint and be recognized in STEM.”

About OWSD

The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) provides research training, career development and networking opportunities for women scientists throughout the developing world. Headed by eminent women scientists from the South, OWSD has more than 6,000 members and runs various programs, including a PhD fellowship program with over 200 graduates from Least Developed Countries and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as an Early Career Women Scientists fellowship program launched in December 2017. OWSD is the first international forum to unite women scientists from the developing world with the objective of strengthening their role in the development process and promoting their representation in scientific and technological leadership. OWSD is affiliated with The World Academy of Science (TWAS), a program unit of UNESCO, and is based in Trieste, Italy, with national chapters throughout the developing world.

About Scientific African

Scientific African is a peer reviewed, open access, inter- and multidisciplinary scientific journal dedicated to expanding access to African research, increasing intra-African scientific collaboration, and building academic research capacity in Africa. The journal aims to provide a modern, highly-visible platform for publishing pan-African research and welcomes submissions from all scientific disciplines in 10 broad categories. The journal is owned by the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), and Elsevier provides a publishing platform on ScienceDirect along with technical support and staff expertise.



Written by

Martina Di Gregorio

Written by

Martina Di Gregorio

Martina Di Gregorio is an Intern for Scientific African. She has a background in journalism, with a bachelor’s degree in the field, and she is currently finishing a master’s degree in Publishing Studies in the Netherlands. She has been studying and living in four different countries in the past five years, including Ethiopia, where her passion for the continent was first sparked.

Before this internship, she contributed to music websites, reviewing concerts and albums of indie artists. When she is not behind a computer writing, she enjoys reading and listening to podcasts.


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