Four interrelated themes were identified. They illustrate how women’s and men’s participation in scientific research activities is shaped by interactions between familial and socio-cultural drivers, and the structure of normative career pathways. In this process, gender intersects with other aspects of identities, leading to differing working experiences and inequities in career progression.
Theme 2: Social power relations of gender within the family and wider society
Participants’ narratives elucidated the ways that social power relations of gender shaped their struggle in meeting the career progression requirements; specifically the unequal gender division of labour within the family, and informal ‘rules’ of gendered social norms, values and stereotypes in society.
Unequal gender division of labour within the family
Scientific research career progression requirements were reported as more challenging for women compared to men. Most female and male participants consistently identified competing expectations of career and family responsibilities as a factor impeding research productivity, and agreed that this is particularly the case for women. A common notion was that ‘in Africa’, women’s key role is to perform domestic chores and meet marital and family obligations while men are expected to be ‘breadwinners’ as exemplified in the quote below:
“Women especially in Africa are at a more disadvantaged point because a woman is central in the family obligations especially when children are young. Men are expected to go out there toiling to get money for the family as breadwinners” (IDI, Female, #01, PhD).
Fulfilment of such gendered responsibilities entails normative symbolic requirements of constant ‘availability’ and visible prioritisation of family and marriage. For women, this included an ideal of always being at home to fulfil domestic responsibilities such as caring roles for children, and other family members such as siblings and elderly parents, as well as participation in family events. For men, it involved being at home to participate and sometimes preside over customary family obligations, and safeguard their families and marriages, in addition to fulfilling their breadwinning roles as household heads.
Informal ‘rules’: gendered social norms and values of marriage and childbearing
The influence of informal ‘rules’ characterised by gendered social norms and values, and socially ascribed gender roles, responsibilities, and expectations was common in most female and some male participant narratives at all career stages. This was mediated by other aspects of individual identity such as age, marital status, parental status, religion, positional hierarchy in the family, and social norms around birth order, which presented differential career advancement challenges.
A common struggle for some unmarried female researchers at all career stages was conformity to societal values which stress the centrality of marriage and motherhood for women. Some experienced pressure from their parents, extended family members and religious leaders to get married and have children, at a time when their peers were establishing their science career. The timing of this depended on the contextually specific societal expected age at marriage for women and men. Most participants asserted that in some social contexts with strong religious beliefs and values around marriage, women were expected to either get married in their early, mid or late twenties, regardless of education, and start bearing children not later than three years into marriage. In contrast, men were required to marry either in their mid-to-late twenties or early thirties. Some unmarried women who defied such societal expectations occasionally received cautionary statements such as “your eggs will die”(IDI, Female, #09, MSc ) or “ I am getting old…I need to see your child before I die” (IDI, Female, #07, MSc). Such emotional pressure was mainly raised by participants whose parents were becoming much older, or who were raised by their grandparents, who would beg them to fulfil their wishes. In addition, some parents conspired with religious leaders who would scorn and admonish their daughter for prioritising a career over marriage.
It also emerged that in some families, female siblings are expected to get married according to birth order. One Christian participant noted, based on experience and observation, that in her home context, a woman with younger siblings who prioritises career establishment over marriage becomes seen as a ‘nuisance’ to her parents and extended family members who would keep nagging her to “open the marriage doors for the rest of the siblings” (IDI, Female, #32, MCR, married). She also felt internal pressure to conform to such expectations based on her religious beliefs. Similarly, a Muslim male participant emphasised that based on his cultural and religious beliefs, “women and men can only get blessings in life once they are married… It is something you can’t run away from as it’s a rite of passage” (IDI, Male, #16, MSc, unmarried).
Some unmarried male researchers also reported experiences of shame and ridicule from parents, siblings, and peers in home communities, who could not understand why “you are only prioritising getting degrees over marriage and establishing family” (IDI, Male, #20, PhD). They faced occasional demeaning statements such as “life seems to be slow for you” (IDI, Male, #08, PhD) and “you will die in school” (IDI, Male, #19, PhD).
Overall, most participants explained family members and broader society including friends, had limited understanding of the requirements and importance of scientific work and are thus not sympathetic to the dilemmas facing them in establishing their careers. Notably, most scientific researchers who participated in this study (46/58) identified themselves as the first highly educated generation in their family and the first to pursue such a career.
Theme 3: Navigating ‘two different lives’
This theme focuses on how gender and other identities shape researchers’ everyday experiences of navigating the ‘two different lives’ of career and family, and the resultant implications for their career progression and personal well-being.
Time pressure and sense of ‘work-life’ imbalance related to scientific writing
Time pressure particularly disadvantages women in career progression
Although scientific writing and publication was considered essential for upward career mobility, making time for this ‘activity’ was perceived as ‘difficult’ by everyone. However, most participants (both female and male) expressed that it is particularly challenging for women given the unequal gender division of labour within the family, which renders women - regardless of marital or parental status - ‘time poor’
“Even getting time to sit and write just becomes so difficult...So it is not easy. I just feel we [women] are ‘time poor’…we struggle to write and manage other major family responsibilities [elderly care]… of course moving to the next level for scientists, it is always about publishing” (IDI, Female, #27, PDF, unmarried).
Men were perceived as ‘privileged’ with the opportunity of staying in the office for longer working hours compared to women who have to leave earlier to fulfil family responsibilities:
“I have to pull my weight just as much as the male counterpart who sits next to me can pull their weight… these guys [men] stay in the office until 9 pm and for me I have to leave at 3 pm to pick children from school…help them with homework…cook dinner and ensure they are in bed by 8pm…then I continue working maybe until 11 pm and wake up by 5am to repeat it all over again… I am trying to manage ‘two different lives’ which is a struggle for me” (IDI, Female, #26, PDF, married, under 5-year-old children).
The above participant further expressed that a married woman staying in the office till late means the family suffers and society will judge her as a woman who failed to manage her home. This places women at a disadvantage in terms of their opportunities to allocate and spend the ‘extra time’ required to meet institutional requirements for career progression. Some men also commented on the impact of this on women’s career progression opportunities; for example: “I always wonder how women make it in science beside managing their childbearing and family responsibilities” (IDI, Male, #05, PDF, married, under 5-year old-children).
Time pressure impacts differently on women and men
Most female researchers, at all career levels irrespective of their marital and parental status, reported that ‘there is no work-life balance in science’ careers; which often meant long hours working both at home and at work. Some asserted that for women to achieve career progression, they have to work much harder compared to men at fulfilling their dual responsibilities. Concerns about continued poor ‘work-life balance’ leads junior and early career female researchers, to question whether to stay in a scientific research career
“Time is a big one…For me being able to balance between your family and work is a big challenge…that has been going through my mind lately. I definitely like science, but I am beginning to question myself of whether or not I want to stay in science if it continues to be the way it is” (IDI, Female, #18, MSc, unmarried).
Most men perceived themselves as better off compared to women in terms of time pressure. Some male researchers also shared concerns about ‘poor work-life balance’, particularly at doctoral and post-doctoral career stages. However, their explanations revolved around the long-hours working culture of science which puts a toll on their ‘time’ allocation for social activities and personal life. Thus, they might have an advantage in career progression, but at a personal cost. For this reason, some already felt they were unlikely to continue with such a career path:
“The reality is that I don’t seem to have the ‘right’ work-life balance… it’s difficult. I am [at work] at night and on weekends…it takes up a lot of ‘time’ …[and] has had a toll on my social life … you have to keep off a number of things… Actually, I feel like I need to change … to find the kind of work that gives me the flexibility for personal time … I can’t continue working this way for the coming years” (IDI, Male, #10, PhD, unmarried).
Additional time demands for language minority research scientists
A unique challenge elucidated by participants who identified themselves as language minorities, was the additional time requirements to read and write in English. Participants from Francophone countries explained that, “As Francophone fellows, we have no choice but rather you must put in effort to learn English, which is a universal language of scientific communication” (IDI, Male, #04, PDF). Many of them saw this as a challenge that they were determined to meet to ‘prove themselves’ equally as good research scientists as the Anglophones. However, preparing and delivering scientific outputs and presentations in English requires additional time allocation
“We still need more ‘time’ for us to write in English…most of the time we write first in French then we translate into English …[then] share the text with the people from English speaking countries to correct every text…[also]when making [a] presentation, you need first to prepare your talk,… present it to them...[so that] they correct it before the meeting. The whole process takes much ‘time’…that is my greatest challenge” (IDI, Male, #01, Francophone PDF).
Female Francophone researchers are thus doubly disadvantaged by the additional time burden of writing in English as well as their domestic responsibilities:
“The language barrier is a very big problem for us…writing becomes a bit more difficult when you have kids, [as] you have more duties and you have to share your ‘time’ in between family and writing. So of course, it impacts to the ‘time’ you have to dedicate to grant writing or publication writing…So it takes a long ‘time’ for us” (IDI, Female, #04, Francophone PDF).
Pressures around participation in scientific mobility-oriented ‘activities’
The expectations of geographic mobility oriented ‘activities’ required to progress in a scientific career emerged as a specific dimension that differentially affects women and men in ways that are gendered and intersect with other aspects of their identities. All participants narrated that the DELTAS Africa initiative offered them travel grants for attending and presenting at conferences as well as undertaking exchange programmes through visiting research collaborators in the global North. Such visits vary in duration across different consortia and career stage, but tend to last between three to six months. However, even though such opportunities were equally presented to them, some women and men researchers experienced barriers to uptake, which were shaped by their marital and parental status, nature of partnership, and positional hierarchy in the family.
Some women researchers with young children, whether they were married or not, explained that their ability to take up these opportunities was limited by their socially prescribed childbearing and care responsibilities. They tended to be selective of which travels to pursue and to shy away from those that required staying away for a longer period in favour of fulfilling their caring responsibilities. One participant contrasted this with her male colleagues’ ability to take up all the opportunities available
“For us women, you can't force it to happen, but rather choose which event to attend while men can decide to go for all events” (IDI, Female, #25, PDF, married, under 5-year-old children).
Another explained that childbearing had ‘slowed down’ her career for this reason:
“This is a woman’s life, so it is challenging for every woman who has children. There are occasions where I have failed attending conferences or travelling abroad for an important training…either I was pregnant, or I had a very young breastfeeding baby...so it can slow down some steps in establishing your career niche” (IDI, Female, #05, PDF, married, under 5-year-old children).
Male participants agreed with this; for example:
“For a woman, if you have children who are less than one-year-old, it is not easy to go [abroad] for three months. Perhaps you have to go with your children if it is possible…I think that is the good thing that we [the programme] can do” (IDI, Male, #03, PDF, married, under 5-year old-children).
Notably, despite their reliance on employing house-helps for childcare while at work, most mothers were apprehensive of leaving their children under their care while on travel for fear of child abuse.
This problem was not only perceived as that of physically taking care of children but also a more normative symbolic importance of always being ‘available’ and having a primary focus on mothering responsibilities. Whilst both married and unmarried female researchers with young children sought childcare support, which is a vital ‘resource’, from the extended family, they expressed frustration that this was sometimes given grudgingly. In-laws may remind them indirectly of the primacy of their caring duties with statements such as: “remember you have duties, don’t abandon them” (IDI, Female, #27, PDF). Some highlighted that even if childcare support during travel is provided by the programme, sometimes the in-laws and extended family members would question “why you leave the family behind and often fail to participate in the family events” (IDI, Female, #22, PhD, married, under 5-year old-child). This participant narrated that continuous failure to do so could result in marital discord and break-up, leading to emotional suffering, a view that was consistently shared by other married female participants. One participant narrated her own experience of this:
“So it became stressful …my partner [non-dual career couple] could not understand why you are not ‘available’…you are always on travels… He thinks you are going beyond what he understood you as a woman. …. Yeah, ‘relationships’ went through the roof! That one [laughs], I mean it is very hard for us women” (IDI, Female, #31, MCR).
Similarly, while making reference to the normative symbolic requirements of constant ‘availability’ in most socio-cultural contexts in Africa, a male participant explained that:
“In our African culture in general, women are not allowed to travel all the time. For men it’s normal as they are breadwinners and thus obliged to travel and fend for their families …not the contrary. …The society doesn’t have a problem with men travelling compared to women because they see you are working and trying to provide for your family…it is essential…They [men] are barely questioned when they stay away from home for long” (IDI, Male, #02, PDF).
Notwithstanding the stereotypical normative assumption that men are breadwinners, some married men researchers feared and declined to undertake the long-term travels expected in exchange programmes. They perceived this a as a compromise due to the normative expectations of always being ‘available’ at home with the rest of immediate family members specific to their situation. For instance, a participant feared being criticised by his nuclear and extended family for “moving out too much….[as] they have heard stories of people [men in the community] who when they go out [abroad], some of their marriages come to an end” (IDI, Male, #10, PhD, married, under 5-year old-children). This was based on the perception that such men are likely to establish another family abroad. He further explained that such concerns led to a lag in acquiring the necessary scientific skills required to enable him to carry out his research work.
In another instance, a married male researcher, who had additional responsibilities as a de facto household head of his extended family following his father’s death, recounted how the normative symbolic importance of constant ‘availability’ for the family inhibits his participation in scientific mobility. He narrated that by virtue of being the only son from his nuclear family he bears the customary responsibility to preside over important family social events such as marriage ceremonies and death of a family member; in his absence such matters get postponed, which makes him feel he is a nuisance to his family. He expressed that taking time off work for these responsibilities are can also be interpreted by supervisors as showing a lack of commitment to work. He expressed that sometimes men like himself “suffer in silence” over these dilemmas, explaining: “Sometimes, we don’t say certain things!” (IDI, Male, #23, other identities withheld). Consequently, “such customary family obligations [which] dictates that as a man you need to be home taking care of such issues…can weigh down on your career as they come with a lot of stress…[which can] pull you back a lot [from progressing]” (IDI, Male, #23, other identities withheld). Thus, some male researchers experience either negative effects on their career progression or their personal well-being due to navigating these competing pressures.
Scientific mobility challenges exacerbated for dual scientific career couples:
Participants who were married to another scientist with young children cited scientific mobility as their greatest challenge to progression, particularly when their travel dates coincide. They had to make decisions about who should travel, with some explaining that they followed a rotational travel plan as “there is no proper formula for resolving the child-care puzzle when that happens” (IDI, Male, #25, PDF). In this situation, female participants in such unions shared their personal frustrations about not only limiting their own travel, but also bearing the brunt of childcare responsibilities alone when their partner travels, affecting their career progression:
“I bear the brunt of everyday care of dropping and picking them (children) from school and caring for them once they get home, which is affecting my progress with doctoral studies…sometimes you have to put those travels on hold…you would want your partner to be supporting such endeavours but unfortunately you are just alone (because of geographical separation)” (IDI, Female, #14, PhD, dual scientific career couple, under 5-year old-children).
The above participant expressed thoughts of quitting scientific research in pursuit of clinical practice. Other female researchers in such a marital union explained that the problem extended beyond the practical problem of childcare to the normative expectation of their availability and responsibility: “If both of you are out, whatever happens to the children in Africa, the woman is definitely blamed…so most women like myself don’t bother taking them up” (IDI, Female, #11, PhD, dual scientific career couple).
Theme 4: Potential strategies utilised by women for navigating the ‘two different lives’
Both female and male participants observed that the timing of the performance and establishment of one’s scientific research career, mainly happens while in their 30 s, the period during which most women researchers experience the highest level of career interruptions because of childbearing and rearing responsibilities. This puts them at a disadvantage in terms of achieving the milestones within a normative career path as compared to men:
“Sometimes depending on the age, it becomes very difficult for women to build their careers…women who are generally my age [mid 30s] have young families…This is the point at which they now feel they can establish their career which creates a huge conflict [and] poses a challenge for them as they have to either take a break from research or their career progression to bring up their family” (IDI, Male, #26, PDF, married, under 5-year old-children).
In the context of the challenges described above, many women researchers made different and conscious trade-offs between their ‘time’ commitments for family and scientific research activities. In narrating this, and their considerations in making these trade-offs, they used several key metaphors such as the ‘biological clock and career clock’, the ‘glass ball and rubber ball’, and the concept of ‘sacrifice’. Male researchers did not speak about such strategies.
The metaphor of the ‘biological vs career clock’ pitted the idea of a ‘ticking’ ‘biological clock’ – a limited window for fertility – against a ‘career clock’, which denoted a steady focus of establishing oneself career-wise, expressing the sense of time pressure. The time pressure of the career clock was described by both female and male participants as increasing with seniority, as expressed by a female participant as follows:
“As you move up, it becomes harder and harder demanding much time, energy and attention. […] the family life is one of the major competing interest, and unfortunately the burden always lies with the woman… You are constantly split between managing these two things …That is why there are a lot more girls doing PhDs and then when it reaches post doc all of them will tell you, I can’t take the pressure of science” (IDI, Female, #29, MCR).
Women attempting to ‘chase’ both ‘biological and career clock’ complained of ‘mental slowness’ and constant fatigue which they felt contributed to slowing down their career advancement compared to their male counterparts.
Others articulated that in life, women are presented with two balls: a ‘glass ball’ and a ‘rubber ball’. The ‘glass ball’ denoted the normative expectation to get married and establish a family, which when dropped, is difficult to recover as it will be broken completely. The ‘rubber ball’ denoted the career itself, which when dropped, will keep bouncing - that is you can always have it back - expressing the idea that one’s personal life is more fragile than a career and needs to be protected where one is unable to effectively ‘juggle’ the two balls.
Many female participants narrated a sense of making ‘sacrifices’, either of their career progression in favour of their personal and family life or vice versa. One woman expressed this as follows: “as a woman you cannot throw your children and husband on the street because of career progression” (IDI, Female, #12, PhD). This participant, who was in a dual scientific career marital union, narrated how she had taken a career break from science by taking up an administrative job for close to ten years which enabled her to raise her children. She later resumed her science career (catching back the ‘rubber ball’) by taking up a DELTAS research fellowship. She emphasised that achieving certain milestones by a certain age as is normative in scientific career path can be difficult especially when age is used as a criterion for selection as well as good publication and grant record. She expressed that this amounts to a form of discrimination, along with employers being unwilling to make allowances for such career breaks in recruitment. Consequently, she observed that such women can end up getting ‘stuck’ in lower level scientific research positions or opt out of this career either part way through to senior level or in early stages of the ‘pathway’. Those women who narrated prioritising their ‘career clock’ explained that their relationships have suffered. For example:
“Our relationship just ended like that…he thought I am busy chasing this career by not thinking about settling down for marriage…he gave up with me. I have been suffering in silence since then [for the past 2.5 years]… it is difficult…I really don’t want to speak about it at length, it is hard” (IDI, Female, #06, PDF, unmarried).
Some junior and early career women researchers who were already married or were planning to get married and establish families expressed that they had very few examples of women in senior scientific positions who are also in successful marriages. Their perception, that most senior women had to ‘sacrifice’ their marriages to enable them progress in their careers, negatively impacted their potential ambitions for career progression in scientific research. Overall, most women, especially at junior and early career stages, regardless of their marital and parental status, viewed an academic scientific research career as ‘a huge battle’. This seemed unappealing in view of the ‘sacrifices’ they felt they would need to make for these careers:
“It’s a ‘huge battle’ for women which creates difficulties for them to just make a decision on whether to progress to next level in their science career or not… So, you are going to worry about the impact that that decision is going to have to the rest of your family” (IDI, Female, #13, PhD, married, under 5-year old-child).
Some were already considering alternative career pathways, including: academic teaching roles and pursuing research consultancies on the side; research and grant management; or developmental non-governmental organizations. They perceived such opportunities as likely to enable them to achieve a better work-life balance. In the same vein, a male participant argued that even though the overall DELTAS programme has almost achieved gender parity in recruiting female and male researchers, women face greater barriers to progression as “…it’s a steeper hill for women to climb on …which requires much ‘sacrifice’ ” (IDI, Male, #09, PhD).