Professor Francine Ntoumi (University Marien Ngouabi) is the Executive Director of the Fondation Congolaise pour la Recherche Médicale. We asked her a few questions on gender balance in research.
What are the challenges for African women to pursue a career in science?
Francine Ntoumi (FN): In part, the challenges are the same as anywhere. For starters, education is a challenge. For girls to get the opportunity to go to university and reach the doctoral level is a challenge. In many countries, preference is given to males for long-term education. Girls are encouraged to marry as a solution for their future.
In Africa too, many negative stereotypes are attached to ‘women in science’. A woman should not be highly educated, or she will not be able to get married. Being ‘an intelligent woman’ is appreciated negatively. Fortunately, things are changing with the internet and globalisation of communication. With growing global exposure, African girls are becoming more confident and assertive, and are looking for role models. More and more girls realise that education is key for their independence and freedom.
Prof. Francine Ntoumi
What has the CANTAM network done to promote the role of women in research?
FN: We have conducted various activities to raise awareness of the importance of having more women in science. We visited schools to show girls that science can be in their dreams. We simply need more women in science and for that, we must interest them at a young age. They need role models.
We also conducted an awareness campaign with big billboards promoting women in science in the main cities of the country, We participated in television and radio programmes for the general public. And, closer to home, we have a recruitment policy of positive discrimination. When skills are equal, preference is given to women.
Prof. Francine Ntoumi
With growing global exposure, African girls are becoming more confident and assertive, and are looking for role models. More and more girls realise that education is key for their independence and freedom.
What would your advice be to a female colleague stepping into a leadership position in science?
FN: I will wish her to have a lot of courage because she needs more of it than a man. My advice is that she gives the best of herself while realising she has a responsibility to succeed. Her success will reflect on all other women and so will her failure. This is tough but she must be aware that she is an example, a role model or even a pioneer, depending on where she is.
Professor Francine Ntoumi (University Marien Ngouabi) is the Executive Director of the Fondation Congolaise pour la Recherche Médicale, the coordinator of the emergency preparedness and response consortium PANDORA-ID-NET, the coordinator of the EDCTP-funded regional network ‘Central Africa clinical research network – CANTAM2 Venture, the Vice-President for Central Africa of the African Academy of Sciences, and the representative on behalf of the Republic of the Congo in the EDCTP General Assembly.
In your experience, what would be the right actors to improve gender equality in science?
FN: The right actors? In my experience, the private sector has an important role (the L’OREAL Foundation, the MERCK Foundation and others); bursaries and grants to encourage specifically girls and women with high potential will contribute to more gender equality. And of course, public stakeholders have a big role to play here too. Universities in Africa should be more pro-active in identifying and encouraging the best female students.
Advancing gender balance and equality, what has to happen at the level of policy?
FN: In the CANTAM network, we surveyed whether our universities had written policies related to gender. There was nothing and we expect this to be the case in many other institutions in the countries of the network. At the national level, there must be laws regulating gender equality and they have to be implemented and upheld. It is not possible to advance this cause well if there is no legal and policy framework. This will make it possible to fight effectively those who flout our equality.