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What can be done to better support women pursuing their PhDs in Africa

A Doctor of Philosophy – commonly known as a PhD – is the highest level of academic training. It allows the degree holder to teach the chosen subject at university, conduct research or practise in the specialised area.

However, in many African countries like Kenya there are gender gaps when it comes to women enrolling in, and completing, their PhD studies. This subsequently affects their recruitment into university teaching and research positions. Women make up just just 30% of the Africa’s researchers.

There are various reasons for this. For instance, a study covering several African countries found that barriers include sexual harassment, a lack of mentors – with some male faculty mentors unwilling to act as mentors for junior women – and difficulty finding a balance between career and family.

A study by the African Academy of Sciences reported similar challenges faced by women scholars in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)disciplines. It found that the success of women already working in STEM was highly influenced by the work environment, the recruitment process and gender relations.

More has to be done to help women overcome gender-based challenges.

To support postgraduates in further education, several initiatives offer PhD fellowships – a merit-based scholarship – in Africa.

My colleagues and I from the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) wanted to examine one of these and how it catered for women. Our case study was on the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA). This is an initiative that was formed in 2008 and is jointly led by the APHRC, based in Kenya, and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

We focused on CARTA for our study because it tries to build the capacity of individual PhD scholars – who focus on public and population health – using doctoral fellowships and research grants. CARTA also tries to get member universities to institutionalise good practices.

By the end of 2019, CARTA had graduated 87 of its 209 active PhD fellows. These individuals produced peer-reviewed publications and some fellows were promoted in their academic careers.

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