The superhero skills needed to juggle science and motherhood
African women bear a greater share of family and domestic responsibilities than many of their counterparts in the rest of the world. In 2019, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said Africa had the highest levels of gender discrimination against women in the world. And in 2020, the World Economic Forum reported that women in sub-Saharan Africa earned 68% of what their male counterparts earned.
In the first of eight profiles in which African women share their career stories in science, microbiologist Ahmed El-Iman, a microbiologist at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria, and Fulbright Scholar at Carolina State University North in Raleigh, describes the “superhero”. skills needed to reconcile work and family life.
By the time I completed my MSc in Microbiology at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria in 2007, I was married and had my first child. It was then that I understood that it was going to be difficult to be a researcher, a wife and a mother.
From my experience as an African woman, your first responsibility is to be a mother. Anything beyond that? Well, good luck to you, even if you have an understanding partner. Household chores and childcare rest 100% on the shoulders of mothers, this is the norm in our society. As a researcher, your career path is already more difficult and limited in resources than that of a man. You need a basic level of superhero skills.
When I went to the University of Nottingham, UK, to do my PhD in 2013, I brought my three children under the age of seven with me. It was hectic – there’s no other word for it – but they also brought me joy. My husband visited us as much as he could and he supported us financially, which allowed me to pay for childcare. It was the only way to go.
Upon my return to Nigeria, I became a lecturer, giving lectures and advising students. I am also expected to conduct research that is of value to our immediate community. My research focuses on the production of industrial chemicals and fuels using microorganisms. I have a research group of students, but there is no research funding allocated by the university. If you are extremely lucky, you might get a government research grant through the university of around US$2,000. There are not many grants and there is a lot of competition.
What matters most for promotion is your research, even if you don’t have the resources or the time for it. It’s not unique to academia. Much of Africa is poor and struggling for resources such as healthcare, infrastructure and education.
We just have to make it work. We apply for grants but we also pool our own funds. The average salary for a professor in federal universities in Nigeria is around $800 per month, and everyone of a lower rank receives less. But each person sets aside a huge share to fund the research out of their own pocket. I might set aside $2,000 for the year, a masters student might set aside $200-300, and an undergraduate might set aside $100-150. This money is pooled to buy shared consumables and small equipment.
We work closely, partnering with colleagues in the engineering department to share equipment. We can’t afford basic microbiology equipment, like a large shaking incubator, which costs more than two years of my salary, so we manufacture what we can locally. And then we standardize that equipment so that quality controls are in place.
The research isn’t as deep or impactful as we’d like – because we know we could. We do all of this because we want to publish in Scopus indexed journals. The cost of publication is another obstacle. So we submit to free or open access journals that don’t charge a fee, but take a long time to publish our research. It’s hectic and demoralizing, but we continue. Not fortunately, but voluntarily, we make these sacrifices to do the research.
I have published studies on food spoilage, the microbes that cause it and how to prevent it, as well as profiling the microbial community of a mine site using metagenomics tools. I am particularly proud of the latter. That’s the kind of research we can do, but we can’t do a lot of it.
The university is located on land where there is no shortage of biomass, which we could use to make biofuels. But the initial set-up to produce biofuels is expensive. We applied for a government grant and were unsuccessful, but we will keep trying.
Many people in Nigeria fear for their own safety amid ongoing violent crimes and kidnappings. Universities are doing everything they can to increase security by investing in security guards and installing cameras in strategic areas of campus. We don’t leave work late, we avoid isolated places and above all we pray a lot.
Nigeria has a serious youth unemployment problem. I tell STEM students to learn digital technology skills to increase their chances. If they want to pursue higher education in STEM, I suggest they do as many internships as possible in related fields to improve their chances of getting a scholarship to study abroad or here.
Being a woman in STEM in my part of Africa is daunting. I sometimes work 12 hour days for weeks. When I get home at 6 or 7 p.m., I still have to cook dinner, help my kids with their homework, and get them ready for bed. I am lucky to have a husband who supports me and takes care of our children. Yet I rarely have the extra 20 hours or more that it takes to apply for a grant. Who has time to attend conferences or write articles? It’s a zero-sum game: the more time you spend on household chores, the less you spend on your career. All of this perpetuates the perception that women are incapable or incompetent, and that is simply not true.
The burden is particularly high for mothers in more traditional societies. We literally spend our whole lives working hard, but I can’t put four kids on my resume and get credit for it.
Academic work is always wonderful. In my opinion, there is nothing else that plays such a direct role in shaping tomorrow. It’s very rewarding to have those eureka moments in the lab. My children have this love for science — my daughter just won an elementary school prize for “scientists of the future”. So yes, it’s worth it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.