New thesis on women in biological research careers in Mozambique
In a new study on women in biological research careers in Mozambique, Juvêncio Manuel Nota looks at two public universities in order to explore what obstacles women experience in their biology career trajectories. Through qualitative interviews with 39 women working in higher education biology in Mozambique, the study lifts the lived experiences of women at different stages in their biology careers and seeks to contribute to structural policies that can help overcome obstacles for women’s academic career progression.
Biology is one of few subjects within the natural sciences that tends to have a relatively high proportion of women at undergraduate level. This is true for many countries, including Mozambique, which is the national context in which Juvêncio Manuel Nota, PhD student at the Centre for Gender Research, has carried out his research. But something happens on the way up the biology career ladder, both in Mozambique and worldwide, and few women in biological research advance to the highest positions. Why is it that women’s biology career progression seems to slow down or stagnate?
- This lack of women in the highest positions in biology, and in most science disciplines, is a widespread problem across the world and not only in Mozambique or in Sub-Saharan Africa, explains Juvêncio. But there are different social, cultural and organisational factors that influence this phenomenon, depending on the national context. In Mozambique for example, there is a strong patriarchal culture and a very hierarchical culture of higher education that contribute to holding women back.
The study identifies several different obstacles to women’s career progression within higher education biology in Mozambique, both at structural, sociocultural and interpersonal levels. One prominent theme in the research concerns social and cultural conventions of marriage and family responsibilities. There are strong social and cultural pressures for women to get married and have children in Mozambique, explains Juvêncio, and his research highlights the difficulties for women to reconcile family duties with an academic career.
- These women are struggling to fulfil this social prescription to get married and to have children, but there is also a lack of family friendly policies to enable women to have a career. And on top of this, there is a lack of support within their families, since household chores and childcare are traditionally seen as women’s work.
The lack of support for women balancing family obligations and a career leads to many being unable to, for example, travel abroad to get a PhD. Having a PhD is key to career progression in academia, but it is difficult to obtain in Mozambique, due to its higher education institutions being relatively young (the first university in Mozambique was established in 1962).
Juvêncio notes that there was a generational difference in how the women interviewed perceived social and cultural conventions of marriage and family obligations.
- Whereas the older generation of women, who form part of the post-independence generation in Mozambique, are more conformed in terms of their social ascribed roles, in that, for example, as a woman you should get married, have children and so on, the younger generation are more prone to challenge these social ideals and seeking change.
This older generation of, more specifically, women biology lecturers also reported a greater lack of career choice overall, as the post-independence, socialist government made political decisions to prioritise teacher training.
Another important aspect that works to obscure gender disparities at academic institutions in Mozambique, is the idea of the meritocratic, gender-neutral university. Juvêncio explains that this idea, or rather ideal, of the university as gender-neutral, obscures the obstacles and challenges that women are struggling with to advance in their careers. These obstacles are seen as individual and rarely as structural and/or institutional problems.
- In Mozambique, the rhetoric of policy makers is that the academia is gender-neutral and as such gender is seen as a non-issue when it comes to career promotion. But what I found is completely different from this, these universities even being located in different socio-cultural and geographical settings are highly hierarchical and patriarchal in their ongoing processes, practices and values. In addition to that, the ideals of meritocracy that we can find at these universities, work as part of an inequality regime to naturalise the poor status of women in their research careers and at the same time legitimatise widespread male privileges and men in power positions. Meritocracy has been used to blame women themselves as the only ones responsible for their lower status in their academic research careers.
Furthermore, interviews with managers, chancellors, heads of departments and other research leaders – a great majority of whom were male – showed a lack of gender awareness especially in terms of the obstacles women academics were facing.
- People, especially the more senior lecturers/researchers and academic managers, never wonder how the sociocultural and academic settings in which women are located contribute in placing them in socially disadvantaged positions throughout their careers, says Juvêncio. If these people at the top, or in various power positions are unaware about women's careers needs, then they are unable to contribute or influence change at an institutional level.
Furthermore, Juvêncio found absences and silences around gender at the middle and lower institutional levels, which may suggest a kind of passive resistance to fostering gender equality at the faculties and departmental levels.
- We have to work with people in these positions, as they are the ones who can contribute to real institutional change. It is important to work with them and show them how and why gender mainstreaming in academia is important, and how they can work with these kinds of issues in their daily management practises.
The study makes an important contribution to understanding the underlying factors that impact women’s biology career progression in Mozambique, and Juvêncio is positive that this research will enable Mozambican universities to work more productively towards gender equality in academia.
- If we are seeking to promote gender equality, we must critically rethink the institutional structures, processes and values that underpin the daily practices within academia, he says. We need to look at what kind of support – and the quality of that support – that we are providing to women in order to overcome the obstacles and challenges that women experience in their career progression.
Juvêncio Manuel Nota came to the Centre for Gender Research in 2018 as part of the SIDA-funded programme “Gender Mainstreaming: Developing Competencies in Higher Education for Gender Equality, Peace-building and Gender-sensitive Research Coordinators”.