DRC: Closing the gender gap in academic research
December the 1st 2023. In the context of the 16 days of activism, The Belgium Embassy and UN Women, in partnership with ARES and the University of Kinshasa, have organised a workshop on the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) for the women researchers of the University of Kinshasa.
‘When someone mentions engineering, or medicine, or a professor, they imagine a man’ - workshop participant and PHD candidate in biology. Academia, notably regarding the STEM subjects, remains a sector highly dominated by men. The University of Kinshasa is no stranger to these tendencies; of the 1328 academic staff, only 119 are women (9%), while only 15% of the scientific staff is women. Equally, women represent 25% of students in applied sciences, and 23% of exact sciences. Gender equality and women’s empowerment remains a core principle of many academic institutions’ policies, so why do women continue to be underrepresented at universities in the 21st century?
Gender stereotypes, societal pressure, a lack of support, biased teachers and staff, family pressure, are all factors contributing the low representation of women in academic institutions, notably within the STEM sector. While men are encouraged and congratulated on their decision to pursue academic degrees, women are questioned on their choices: What about marriage? You are getting old, isn’t it time to have children? Does your husband agree? How will you juggle the responsibility of motherhood? But, isn’t it a man’s job? Besides competing for high-level positions, women must fight against society’s judgement and a lack of support and encouragement by their peers, including other women and family members.
The constant bombardment of opposing views and obstacles can easily knock one’s confidence, leading many women to abide by the pressure and conform to the life that has been built for them by a stereotype-driven society. ‘You need to be determined to succeed, if not it is very easy to give into people’s opinions’ expressed a researcher in science; ‘We are told that mariage goes first, that we must choose between a man and our career’ shared a chemistry professor, who is one of only 4 women professors, in a faculty of 54.
The Women's Empowerment Principles, a partnership initiative of UN Women and the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), are a set of considerations intended to help the private sector as a whole focus on key elements needed to promote gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and within the community. It refers to 7 key principles that can help truly integrate women and gender into every department and level of an organization, namely: i) The management of the organization is favorable to the notion of gender equality, ii) Equality between men and women in collaboration, iii) Health and safety of staff, iv) Education and training, v) Development of marketing strategies to highlight the role of women in STEM, vi) Equality through advocacy and community mobilization, vii) Measuring progress.
The integration of this principles doesn’t only benefit the women in the institution, but will help the development of the whole organization, as gender equality is not exclusively a woman’s affair, but benefits everyone. 'UN Women, through the WEE pillar, is particularly interested in disseminating WEPs to women professors and scientists to promote the rooting of a gender culture within scientific institutions such as universities and to correct the imbalance in the representation of women in scientific fields.' shared Rosnert Ludovic Alissoutin, head of the women's economic empowerment program at UN Women DRC.
The encouragement of women within academics may start with the support of other women, but its success requires the support of men and institutions. An increased number of committees and clubs in universities are dedicated to women’s presence in academic spheres; universities include the importance of gender equality in their charters and policies. Nevertheless, this is not enough. Mentioning the importance of women’s representation in an institution does not ensure that systems and mechanisms are updated and adapted to the need for equality. Recruiting teams must actively work to abandon gender stereotypes and biased language when referring to women candidates, men in science must treat their women peers as equals and disengage from sexist comments and denigrating behaviours, universities must carry out internal studies to understand where they stand in terms of gender equality.
Only through the engagement of men, women and all decision-taking parties can women be successfully and equally integrated into academic spheres currently dominated by men. ‘There must be a better synergy between professors, staff and students, in order to establish mentorship programmes and projects targeted to women’ expressed a second-year student.
These are some steps to take at institutional level, proposed by WEPs:
- Use the Organizational Gender Gap Analysis Tool to better understand the institution’s position and next steps to take
- Develop an action plan to better integrate gender equality at every level of the institution
- Create a report development framework, to make sure progress is measurable and can be evaluated. This allows the identification of new challenges and obstacles, and facilitates the creation of solutions.
The 20 women researchers from the University of Kinshasa that took part in this training, work in the sectors of humanities, linguistics, natural sciences and exact sciences, and many lead their own coalitions. They all expressed the need for better gender equality and integration in their respective departments. ‘We need to apply to local scholarships, encourage women to apply, talk about the importance of women in academia’ mentioned a researcher; ‘alumni and stakeholders of the university must be engaged too’. With the right action plan, a shared ambition to achieve the WEPs, and the commitment of their institutions, the achievement of the empowerment principles becomes attainable.
'Empowering women means providing them with the tools to exercise power and control over their own lives. We fully embrace the mission of investing in promoting gender equality and empowering women, whether in the workplace, in their communities, and most importantly, in education' expressed Eric Willemaers, Minister-Counsellor and Head of Cooperation at the Belgian Embassy in Kinshasa. UN Women and the Belgian Embassy are engaged in their mission to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment in the DRC, and globally.