Gender equality in global health research has to be strengthened.

Women form the minority of the world’s researchers with a 30% of representation (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2016). Major gender disparities amongst research scientists are evident with women often being placed in lower echelons of responsibility, leading fewer projects than men.

To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, researchers from across The Global Health Network share the challenges they have faced in global health research and advice for their younger selves in the hope of inspiring other women entering the field of global health research.

Dr. Jackeline Alger

Parasitologist, Department of Clinical Laboratory University Hospital Tegucigalpa

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome being a woman in science and how did you overcome it?

“Living in a country in which scientific research is not institutionalized, in which there is no legislation or regulation based on good research practices and where solidarity and teamwork is not frequent, requires more time and effort to overcome obstacles. One of the biggest obstacles that I have had to overcome as a woman in science, has been the long working hours necessary for projects to be executed on time and with the required quality. This has only been possible thanks to the understanding, support and accompaniment of my family."

If you could give one piece of advice to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?

“Make the greatest and best effort to promote and contribute to teamwork with an institutional vision. However, put the necessary limits and gently and firmly withdraw in a timely manner from initiatives and groups that do not advance because the institutional conditions are not favorable. Insisting on these initiatives and groups is sterile and frustrating. Remain alert to identify strategic allies with whom to collaborate and build together in genuine and rewarding teamwork to achieve the institutional goals that are the basis of effective and lasting development.”

Dr. Mariam Hassan 

Clinical Research Administrator, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome being a woman in science and how did you overcome it?

“I had the good fortune of working with many formidable, smart women however the number of women in leadership positions in science was quite limited around me. This led me to believe that perhaps one cannot progress beyond a certain level in science. Though this has changed a lot in recent years there is a still a glass ceiling at most work places which means that most women don’t end up aiming high enough. I cannot say that I have been able to overcome this fully however I would say one should always choose supervisors/ mentors who have both intellect and integrity as only a fair supervisor would ensure that everyone on the team flourishes and reaches their full potential regardless of gender.

The second biggest challenge may sound trivial but plays a big role in the early career years. I struggled with mustering up the courage to ‘sit at the table’ and not just one the sides taking notes and to speak up and make myself heard. This is important for both in person and written communication. I dealt with this by preparing well for meetings in advance and challenging myself to at least speak up once during such meetings. Its still work in progress though…”

If you could give one piece of advice to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?

“This will sound cliché but have faith and be kind to yourself. Keep taking baby steps and you will get there. It’s important to have a plan but its even more crucial to have a plan B and sometimes to go with the flow. Nothing in life works according to the grand plan in your head.”

Dr. Nzelle Delphine Kayem

Global Health Research Specialist, The Global Health Network

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome being a woman in science and how did you overcome it?

“I think one of my biggest obstacles is not only being a woman but being a black woman in science. I have had situations where I have an idea, I propose it, it’s ignored but a month or two down the line, the same idea is repeated by my colleague (either a man or a white woman) and its accepted. Or as happened more recently, I had a collaboration with men and when it came to the discussion on authorship the assumption was I should let the men be first authors despite my finding funding, conceptualising and developing the research. Or when I go to the field for a monitoring visit and the assumption is that I am the research assistant because I am black and my research assistant who happens to be a man or a white woman is considered the PI. Or in the hospital where someone ask you where the doctor is and I have to stop myself saying sarcastically “you’re looking at her”.

As a woman I struggle to get heard! As a black woman, it’s a quandary.

I don’t think I have overcome this. I keep struggling and I have to be diplomatic to reach a compromise or an amicable conclusion but it’s extremely frustrating."

If you could give one piece of advice to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?

“Be unafraid, dare as much as you can, push yourself to the limit, the world will make a space for you.

Many young girls are afraid, or daunted by the idea of science careers. To them I say this, a brilliant scientist is not defined by the way you look. It’s all in the brain. So, dream big, and never let anyone or anything put a damper on that dream. Keep aspiring!”

Dr. Aliya Naheed

Scientist & Head, Initiative for Non Communicable Diseases, iccdr,b

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome being a woman in science and how did you overcome it?

“My biggest obstacle was having the inspiration of ‘being a woman in health science’ that I dreamed of when I was a little girl and then choosing the path of becoming an independent researcher as opposed to being a follower of a superior that expected me to carry out orders and discouraged to give opinion.

In order to overcome the obstacles, I was consistent in my efforts of learning new knowledge and obtain skills as means of grooming myself as a researcher, and never taking a short cut or personal favour or any other means in order to prove myself competent or better over others in any job at any level of a position. Coupled with my strong self will for walking the hard path of science (for anyone) and being lucky enough to have a very few internationally reputed scientists as supervisors who taught me high quality research I have become an independent researcher in the path of my career ladder living in a male dominated research environment.”

If you could give one piece of advice to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?

“From my experiences of the path of extreme hardship over the past 27 years of my research career, I would advise my younger version to invest energy, time and wisdom to build a support system around in order to protect my younger self from the unwanted obstacles that delayed my career achievements as well as forced me to face sheer agony due to relentless fight back against the wrong doing. I would also advise my younger version to build a large cadres of junior researchers, particularly choosing those who are talented and have the courage to face challenges to become a future leader in the career of science. Finally I would advise strongly ‘Never lose your focus to fulfil your dreams, but keep going for reaching the finish line. Never lose your temper, so that you can rise above everything, and NEVER STOP”. 

At The Global Health Network, we seek to foster a new generation of women in health research providing support, guidance and career development whilst connecting initiatives and working across regions, research areas and organisations.

Whether it’s bringing scientists on a panel to discuss gendered dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic to make sure critical voices are heard; or training research nurses on basic statistics so they can manage health research data and be part of research teams that are solving urgent health issues in their regions to save lives. Soon, we will be taking this to the next level launching a Knowledge Hub called “Women in Global Health Research”.

Stay tuned!


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