Female participation in African agricultural research and higher education: New insights

Synthesis of the ASTI–award benchmarking survey on gender-disaggregated capacity indicators

Participation by women in agricultural research and higher education in Africa has increased in recent years. For a sample of 15 Sub-Saharan African countries, the proportion of female professional staff employed in agricultural research and higher education increased from 18 percent in 2000/01 to 24 percent in 2007/08. Nevertheless, female participation levels varied considerably across countries, with comparatively low shares in Ethiopia and a number of Francophone countries in West Africa, and comparatively high levels in southern Africa.

In absolute numbers, female professional staffing levels increased by 8 percent per year, whereas male professional staff levels increased by only 2 percent per year. About two-thirds of the total increase in capacity comprised staff holding only BSc degrees, indicating that the overall quality of agricultural research and higher education staff declined in Sub-Saharan Africa over the seven-year period studied, at least in some of the countries. This is a particularly worrisome trend in light of significant concerns about agricultural research capacity in Africa.

Because of the growing representation of women in entry-level positions, women in agricultural research and higher education are typically younger, currently have lower degrees, and are by definition overrepresented in lower positions and underrepresented in management positions compared with men.

The proportion of women studying agricultural sciences is actually larger than the share of female professional staff employed in agriculture, which is a positive indicator for the future, assuming appropriate incentives can be provided to encourage these students to pursue careers in agricultural research, undertake higher degrees, and ultimately attain positions of seniority. Given that a large proportion of the current pool of students is only enrolled in BSc degrees, it is extremely important that MSc and PhD training programs be provided to ensure the quality of the future pool of researchers.

Women’s participation is clearly more prevalent in agricultural disciplines related to life and social sciences (for example, food nutrition sciences, molecular biology, and agricultural economics), whereas women are particularly underrepresented in areas related to engineering (such as irrigation and water management, natural resource management, and soil science).

Although this report provides new insights into existing female and male capacity in African agricultural research and higher education, more research is needed to improve our understanding of underlying factors such as staff mobility, career paths and the relationship between age distribution and professional levels of women and men. Furthermore, the gender-disaggregated capacity indicators collected for this study only reflect a certain point in time and are subject to fluctuations. Ongoing survey rounds, at least every two to three years, are necessary to maintain an accurate picture not only of women’s participation in agricultural research and higher education in Africa, but also of the region’s overall capacity.

Beintema, Nienke M.
Di Marcantonio, Federica
Published date: 
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
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