a wishlist for scientist mothers

Akin Jimoh: 00:10

Welcome to Science in Africa, a Nature Careers podcast series. I am Akin Jimoh, chief editor of Nature Africa. I work and live in Lagos, and I’m passionate about promoting science and public health journalism in my native Nigeria, and across Africa.

In this series we explore the practice of science in this wonderful continent, the progress, the issues, the needs, and in the words of African scientists who are based here.

In this episode, we meet two women from Ghana and Cameroon who both have two careers. One, as a scientist, and another as a mother.

I wanted to know, what challenges do they face in a male-dominated field? And how do they strike that balance between work and parenthood?

First, I spoke to Angela Tabiri, a researcher lecturer at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Ghana. She’s a mathematician with a focus on quantum algebra.

Let me ask you, how did you get into mathematics?

Angela Tabiri: 01:27

That’s an interesting one. So one of my motivations is that maths gives you a challenge. In secondary school, maths, and growing up, was a bit easy to solve.

But at the university it was a bit challenging.

You are given problem sets, and you have to spend time thinking through, thinking what tricks work, discussing with colleagues. So it gets me thinking a lot.

And for me, I like a challenge. So one thing that is having a challenge and working persistently towards it, and finally, having to be able to solve it. For me, I see it to be quite inspiring.

And also one of my inspirations is the fact that mathematics is a core for every subject for all the sciences.

So being good at maths and being able to teach it means that I’ll be able to impact pharmacists, medical doctors, agriculturalists, and a diverse range of careers.

So it’s more about the impact a good lecturer in mathematics will have in a student’s life.

Akin Jimoh: 02:42

You know, I’m curious to know about this megastar that your life revolves around. Tell us about your child.

Angela Tabiri: 02:57

Okay, so my child. Yes. So she’s Rosa. Rosa, named after both my mum and my husband’s mum. They both have roses in their name. So we named her Rosa. And her middle name is Minagua, which is from our local language. So I’m Fante.

So yes, Mina means my mum, and Agua is the Monday female name in my language. So Minagua means my mum, Agua.

I was born on a Monday. So if I if I call her Minagua it means she’s also named after me.

But my husband’s mum was born on a Monday, the great grandmother was born on a Monday. So she’s named after generations of mums who are Agua.

And my husband is Jampo. So she is Rosa Minagua Jampo.

And I believe maybe when she was on her journey I used to talk a lot on Zoom.

So she got used to me talking like this. So anytime I’m in such meetings she’s interested in listening. So she’s just quiet, listening in. So she’s a good listener. She’s curious. And she’s also adventurous.

Yes. So that’s a bit about Managua, my megastar.

She’s five months. She’s five months, yes.

Akin Jimoh: 04:22

In terms of the help that is available, especially in Ghana, you know, to address the challenges. What kind of help is available? And is this enough?

Angela Tabiri: 04:35

Yes. So in terms of help, institutionally, the government requires that you stay home for three months’ maternity leave before you come.

And once you resume, by law you can close at 2pm until your child is six months old. So the assumption is that you are breastfeeding. So you have to close early in order to breastfeed your child until your child is six months.

So, I will say there is some sort of support from institutions.

In terms of families, I think in Ghana, families do very well. So very often you have mothers being the ones who will take care of their children’s babies when they have.

So grandmothers mainly the core support when it comes to childcare in Ghana. We don’t have….it’s not like the UK where for instance, maybe the government’s paying for you to have your child in a creche for some hours.

We don’t have that here. It’s mainly you taking the initiative to either take your child to a crèche or having a family member taking care of your child.

Akin Jimoh: 05:51

That’s, that’s great. You know, as a mother, how do you manage work and childcare?

And you can also dwell on the challenges. Okay, how do you manage work and childcare?

Angela Tabiri: 06:09

Okay, so I manage it by depending on my support system, which is very important. After my maternity leave, I wanted to return to work. I couldn’t return to work with my baby.

So that where one challenge is. The challenge is that we don’t have nursing rooms yet. We don’t have play areas yet. So if you bring your child, your child will be in your office and it’s not conducive for the child, right.

So one of the challenges is that we don’t have that infrastructure to cater for nursing mothers in most of our institutions.

So once I needed to come, I had to fall on my support system. So two of my primary childcare givers have been my husband and my mum. So my mum currently lives with us at home.

And anytime I am coming to the office, she takes care of my baby. Once I go back to the house, I take my child, which has really helped because without that, I don’t think I’ll even be here because she had to take my baby this morning.

Sometimes I’m at home and I have meetings and I have to close the door and give the baby to her. She’s crying, she has to….

Akin Jimoh: 07:21

So your mum is your support system.

Angela Tabiri: 07:23

One Yes. One of my support systems. okay. Yes, she’s been very supportive.

And the second has been my husband. So I have a very supportive husband. When I said I was going to return to work he didn’t stop me. He knew this is my life, this is the life I’ve been living.

Akin Jimoh: 07:42

He has no choice. He has no choice. Your achievement is his achievement also.

Angela Tabiri: 07:46

Yeah, definitely. Yes, definitely. He’s proud of what I do. So he supports me. So in terms of, okay, I don’t like to drive a lot so often, like this morning, for instance, when I’m coming to work, he comes with me. In the evening sometimes we want to eat and the baby is crying, you have to take care of the baby. And also taking a one month leave from work. So at his work they give paternity leave. One month, when your wife gives birth. So he took his. It just ended on 1 April.

So the whole of the month of March, he was at home, which meant that when I was leaving home, it wasn’t just my mum who take care of the baby. My husband was there to take care of the baby in the evening who could help.

So I’ve depended so much on my support system. My mum and my husband, they had been my primary childcare providers. Of course, the larger family is there. But these have been my core childcare providers.

In terms of the challenges. I mentioned, the lack of breastfeeding rooms. In Ghana, I’m yet to see any institution where we have breastfeeding.

Yes, I think some corporate organizations have that. In terms of educational institutions? It’s hard to find one where you have all these. So it’s a challenge for most working mums, because you want to be sure.

So personally, I want my child to be breastfed. So how do I ensure this? It means that I have to spend time each morning expressing milk for her before I leave home to make sure she has something to drink while I’m away. And when I return I have to express for the next day’s work. It’s all time consuming.

So you have to plan your time well so that I could even make it to this interview on time.

Yeah, so that’s one of the challenges. We don’t have infrastructure to support a lot of young mums in Ghana.

Adidja Amani 09:54

My name is Amani Adidja. I’m a physician, public health specialist, vaccinologist, to be.

I am also a faculty and researcher at the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences of the University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon, sub director of vaccination at the Ministry of Public Health of Cameroon.

I’m currently World Health Organization consultant for the acceleration of COVID-19 vaccination in Africa, working in Kinshasa, but based in Brazzaville at the regional office of WHO for Africa.

It started first of all, with medicine. I, when I was growing, my mother was very ill.

And I think I spent most of my childhood in hospitals, because she underwent many surgical operations.

So I always remember we were sitting in the waiting room waiting for the doctor to tell us how the operation went. And then he will come with a smile. It went very well. Your mother is alive.

And, and I was like, every time you have to go to the hospital, I want to be able to be take care of my mother and to see what’s going on. Because after all the surgery, she was still ill, we were keeping going to hospitals.

And so that’s how I decided to do medicine to be able to, to bring a solution to the health problems of my mother.

So during my studies, I’ve learned, I’ve learned that treatment is good, but you’re treating just one patient at a time.

But if you want to have a big impact, if you want to bring solutions to the problem of underdeveloped countries like Cameroon, then you have to take a public health approach where you can act upstream, preventing people from getting sick, and then really making a difference.

I’m a mother of two sons. My first son is almost 15 now, and the second is three years.

And yes, it has not been very easy because my first son was born when I, before I travelled to the US. And I was like, if I stay here, I will lose the scholarship. And it was not possible for me to travel with a baby in the US.

It was a new country. I didn’t know where to go. So I was very fortunate to have my parents who were very supportive. So as soon as I delivered, I left the baby with my parents.

I’m a strong advocate of breastfeeding and I was not able to breastfeed my son myself because I needed to go for my studies. And luckily, everything went well.

So now he is in high school. And then my second child, our son, was born in 2018. I was head of child health at the Ministry of Public Health. And now I am in Kinshasa.

None of them are with me. My second son is still with my mother. I’m so fortunate to have a supportive mother, who understands that my career is important to me, but at the same time, yeah, I need to have family because you know I am growing old.

So you have to try, to try to balance these two. And then because I have a very supportive mother I think I’ve been able to move, to advance, without too much struggle.

So yes, I think that we need to do more efforts into having a support system particularly for women who want to advance in their career.

We can’t rely on men. They are busy themselves looking for money to be able to keep their family. So women, and particularly working women, will benefit if you have, like, at work some places where we can keep our breast milk, some places where we can breastfeed, some places where we know that our children are safe, and then by the end of the day probably leave and take them home.

And it’s even more difficult for us who travel a lot. Because it’s not just like I have a nine to five job, I travel a lot.

So this is another challenge because when you travel, you also need a support system who will be able to….somebody reliable enough to be able to look after your kids.

And so that wherever you are, you can do your work. One mind is in your country, because you’re not sure what’s going on around.

And so I think I think we love this. And the burden of motherhood falls heavily on women. I think that’s one of the reason that we don’t have enough women emerging in the careers, particularly in sciences.

Akin Jimoh: 16:02

Both Angela and Adiidja are determined to forge successful careers despite the barriers caused by lack of organized childcare. African science faces the same leaky pipeline where talented female scientists leave research because of the barriers they face in society, to career progression.

This is Adidja’s experience.

Adidja Amani 16:25

Definitely. It’s not like I feel like I’m a woman living in one world. It is a fact.

We had just a meeting last week, even here in Kinshasa.

And I noticed I was the only woman in the room. They were all men, because it was a high level meeting. And I was like, “Wow, only men in the room.”

And I was like, sometimes that’s what it feels like. Sometimes you have issues you address. You raise issues, and they don’t understand.

Because I think for some issue it’s women on the whole will have understood better what you’re talking about, particularly when it’s not hard science or like paying people, kind of stuff. That’s the feeling I had. It’s a fact.

Even when you go to the Ministry of Public Health, we look at the directors. So those are the top position directors, And we will find 10 out of 11 directors. Ten are men. There’s only one woman at the Minister of Public Health of Cameroon.

So it’s not like a feeling. It’s a fact that women stay at a lower stage or lower rung because of many barriers. And then people who get to the top positions are men. It’s a fact.

This is a very tough question, particularly in Africa, where gender, where roles are usually defined by gender, where even when you are in a high level meeting people think that it’s the woman who should bring coffee.

Even when you are with your male colleagues when there’s something that’s related to kitchen or to food or to, you know, this traditional woman role. Even sometimes your junior colleagues, they think that you should be the one to do that. And when you don’t, you are like the bad woman.

So first of all, even it starts from the childhood because they think, we think that women should do what is how do we call it literature. They should not do maths. Maths and science are for boys.

This is where the thing starts.

So usually, even when I was in high school, so when we go to science, and you’ll see that there are more boys into mathematics and all of this but less girls because they say science is not for women. So we start from there.

And when we reach the university, the gap is growing. And one of the things that was done in Cameroon to address that is that for the faculty of medicine when I was I was admitted in 2000, 25% were women, 75% were men. But there was a policy that was initiated by the government where we have to take equal numbers of men and women in the faculty of medicine.

And since then the number of women I think women are growing, the number of women are much higher compared to men now at the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Now, this first hurdle has been addressed. But now there’s a second hurdle. Because when we look at full professors (I’m also a faculty but I’m still assistant). But when we look at full professor, they’re practically only men. Few women reach to the full tenure in faculty.

So even as we have now the same number of women and men who graduate from the medical school. Now, for the specialty. Not all the women will go to the specialty because some will get married, and their husband.

I have a friend. Her husband did not allow her to go into specialty because he believed that she was already working now she doesn’t need to continue.

So this is creating another gap. And then now for what do we want to go and teach also, to grow from assistant lecturer to full tenure, the gap is still very important.

So I think that’s one of those policies that was done at a future meeting where we have to admit equal number of women and men has helped address the issue.

I think that even at the policy level position, we should lend a hand more to women, as well as men. We are not competing on the same level.

I have two full time jobs. When I come back from my job. I mean, I have to make sure that there’s enough food, that my children have eaten.

You know, men don’t have to do that. It’s true, I’m not married. So I have less of this burden compared to my colleague. But still it falls on me.

My mother was sick recently. I have three brothers, but I was the one in the hospital because they think that it is the woman who should stay and clean and look after the mother, take the food, and all of this.

And at the school or at my work, I spent two weeks I was not there. And they were like “Where are you? We need you here.”

So there is an ingrained thinking where there are certain roles that should be devoted to women. So if you want to find solutions it’s at many levels.

First of all, the mindset. That’s how, where everything starts. I know it will not be easy because socially, culturally, religion, these three factors are heavy factors that affect heavily on this mindset.

The second level that we need to add is policy. This policy at the faculty of medicine where we need an equal number of men and women admitted, I think have helped to address the issue.

We need to encourage that in in other settings, publications, even for the appointment of top managers.

Akin Jimoh: 23:12

You know, as a scientist you worked and studied in the UK.

Let’s look at it from that perspective.

How does Ghana compare in terms of supporting mothers and scientists with families?

Angela Tabiri: 23:28

Definitely the UK is far ahead of Ghana in terms of having these structures. So whilst so in the UK, you have six months of your maternity leave, which you can extend to a year.

So by the time you come back from maternity leave, your child is already walking around and eating very well, right?

But imagine you’re leaving your three months old child at home. My mother when left to me was quite challenging. I didn’t have a choice, right? It was either I return or you stay at home without a salary. Right. So in terms of that the UK is far ahead.

You can even go for maternity leave for a whole year. But in Ghana we have just six months.

In the UK I remember at the university they had a playroom or a nursery room where, if you had gone to the library to study you could have your child there playing. We don’t have we don’t have that here in Ghana. I’m yet to see that.

So you can see organizations making intentional efforts to accommodate nursing mothers or mothers who wants to bring their children but we don’t have a lot of that here in Ghana.

One of my office mates had when I was a PhD and had children. The council or the government in a way. There was some sort of support form for mothers every week.

So every week she could take her child to a crouch no pay for the number of hours. So she knows, “okay, this week, I have five hours of, of paid childcare. So I’m going to come to the office for these hours and afterwards, I’ll pick my child.”

I don’t have that. If I have to take, take my child to the crèche I have to pay for my own for my own. Yeah, so those are some of the differences we have. Hopefully, by the time you get there with all these advocacies. Maybe this interview gets listened to by some of our public policy leaders, and they try to make some adjustments

Akin Jimoh: 25:32

What you said, as to do with a lot of policy advice, you know, to make things better, or are we you, let me say how should things change in Ghana, in terms of addressing the issues we are talking about?

Angela Tabiri: 25:46

I think people should understand that have if you have a baby, it shouldn’t be a disadvantage to you.

It should be, they should be more supportive of you. Because once you provide that support for a scientist, it means that I will spend more time on my work without worrying about what’s happening to my baby, who is a few kilometers at home, right?

And anytime I’m in my environmental camp thinking, okay, like I said, like, “What’s happening at home? How can I quickly finish this and I’m not and attend to my baby was just Yeah, I would just have easily worked and dash out a few minutes to, to, to look after hair. So we should think of it as I haven’t really, we we think about work within some environments.

So if we want to be within an environment, it’s good to provide us with all the support we need, so that I can focus on research.

Now if I want to do research, research in maths takes time. But now I spend only a few hours at my workplace, which means that we start thinking about a problem. At the moment, when you’re going very deep, you’d have to go home and take care of your, your child because you have a baby.

If there were other support systems I could have spent a longer time at my workplace. And hopefully, I’ll have that breakthrough that I will get.

So people should understand that providing all the support systems we mean that you have your scientists flourishing, producing more ideas, more research and innovations that we need to drive economics or countries.

Akin Jimoh: 27:42

Do you have any words of advice? Or any words of advice for young girls? Oh, like to be like you when you grew up?

Angela Tabiri: 27:50

Yes. So I usually say three things. Dream. I didn’t talk a bit about my background. But when I was growing up, I didn’t see any mathematicians around me.

There were a lot of vices, social vices of my community. But I saw beyond those those vices, I wanted to make impact.

So I dreamt beyond my surroundings. So even though my surroundings showed something very grim, I wanted to do more. So dream beyond your surroundings.

The fact that you don’t see any mentors around you shouldn’t mean that you cannot be what you dream to be.

Secondly, believe in your dream. So you can have a dream that I want to be a mathematician, but if you personally don’t believe in it, then it means it just goes away. Right?

So believe in your dream, and also find people who believe in that dream. For me, I’m not here because I only dreamt or I believe in it.

But I had people who believed in me. These people have been my mentors. I find people who believe in that dream.

And finally take action. So you can have a dream and believe in it. But if you don’t take action or gradually work towards it, then it’s not going to become a reality.

Maths is challenging. So I want to become a mathematician the action will be that I persistently work on my maths problems and constantly think about my problems and consistently work towards them.

I teach to consistently improve my teaching methods so that I become a better teacher. So dream, believe and take action that will be my advice to any anyone listening?

Adidja Amani: 29:39

I am a mother to younger students, many daughters who want me to be their mothers. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time.

But their true potential in particular, with whom I’m very close to you.

As a mentor, I think we need to act at the policy level. In Rwanda, for example, President Kagame may say that at the parliament they need, they have 60% of women, I think it’s the country with the highest number of women parliament’s in the world, I think.

So at the policy level, we need, we need to have this positive affirmation, I think is that’s how that’s how you say it.

So where we give equal chance to women and men. And so this policy will act on three levels.

First of all, strong support systems for women workers at the workplace. Even in a medical school, we need the kind of crèches where we keep children because in Africa, when a woman does not have children, this is not good.

It’s like it’s a requirement. I know that you don’t have to, but that’s how so people feel pressure to have kids.

But having kids should not stop us in our career, or from evolving, or from writing. So if we can have the support system where we can raise our kids while keeping working, I think that that will be a stronger show.

And the second thing is that at the primary level, we need to change the programme so that we remove this barrier where we think science is for men or for boys. Because it starts there. And literature and history is for women. So the mindset needs also to change.

And, finally, we need men to support us. I’m a mother of boys. And sometimes we have men who support us, but we also have men who are big obstacles.

So I want my boys to be an example and to help the women around them. I think that we also need support from men/ Educate our boys, educate men around the world that they could be agents of change by by supporting women not just thinking they are above and we are below them, or we are just there to serve them food or whatever. So this is what they have to say.

Akin Jimoh: 32:31

More does need to happen at the policy level.

As is happening right now at the University of youngers Faculty of Medicine in Cameroon, where 50% of students are mostly women.

But cultural mindsets are slower to progress. As more men step up to close the gender gap, the quicker our world will change its preconceptions about a woman and our role in society.

So that’s all for this episode of Science in Africa a Nature Careers podcast. I am Akin Jimoh, chief editor of Nature Africa. Thanks again to Angela Tabiri and Adidja Amani. And thank you for listening.


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