Mentoring is essential for the next generation of female scientists


Mentoring the next generation of scientists in Africa should start from primary school, continue at university and extend into the workplace. We must encourage the majority of female African students to choose a career in science so that they contribute to the economic and social development of the continent.

Considering that Africa is still a developing continent, there is ample opportunity for careers in science that can contribute to scientific advancement as well as the continent’s socio-economic development.

Mentoring and role modelling should not be seen as two independent roles, even though they are different forms of mentorship. Certainly, the type of mentorship and support one needs differs depending on the stage of one’s career.

Emerging researchers should join a research group that they feel they can contribute to and benefit from. Most research programmes involve working in multidisciplinary teams, which requires one to learn communication, networking and inter-cultural skills.

Networks can play a significant role. Through social platforms, one can remain in contact with some of the top scientists and researchers across the world. Sometimes, these networks can even become useful when applying for grants. Here, again, it is important to look out for academic exchange programmes or fellowships, which can enable one to work with excellent teams at many institutions.

As a Research Director at a South African university, I spend about 60% of my time mentoring. Creating enabling research environments both at an organisational policy level and leadership level is critical in order to achieve one’s goals.

A typical policy that contributes to how supervisors or mentors behave towards those they mentor or supervise includes how performance in research groups is measured. The methods used by bureaucrats running institutions have been labelled “bean counting”, which has reduced the autonomy of academics.

Balancing act

When I was a full-time academic, I loved the flexibility my role as a mathematician gave me. I worked long hours but made up for those long hours during university breaks. I planned conference trips around school holidays so that there was less stress on my work colleagues and family.

My family helped to take care of my children when they were young. My husband has always been supportive. Of course, I have struggled emotionally and sometimes had to make difficult choices.

But I have been exposed to a vast network of colleagues globally who continue to keep my research candle burning. I still find great fulfilment contributing to knowledge in my subject area and supporting younger faculty members to achieve their goals.

The issue of balancing a career and family needs came under the microscope at an East African Research and Innovation Management Association 2015 conference in Uganda. Delegates agreed that organisations must have flexible gender-sensitive policies, including promotion criterion that takes into account gender issues without compromising on quality.

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