Gender Equality and Inclusivity

Funding propels science councils in sub-Saharan Africa closer to inclusive, gender-equal research granting

From April 2024 to March 2025, science granting councils in sub-Saharan Africa will implement measures to support gender equality and inclusivity (GEI) in science and innovation. The National Research Foundation (NRF) South Africa and the German Research Foundation (DFG) are providing funding to councils on the continent aiming to integrate GEI considerations in their research granting. If they receive the funding, the councils will have approximately 9-10 months to implement the plans outlined in their proposals. At a recent face-to-face workshop in Pretoria, councils participating in the Gender Equality and Inclusivity (GEI) project met to share, peer-review and refine these plans.

The GEI Project, a part of the Science Granting Councils Initiative, has worked with country councils across the region since 2022 to increase diversity in science. By increasing the participation of women and other marginalised groups, members aim to improve the quality, breadth and social responsiveness of scientific output. Since January 2023, the project has focussed on the research grant-making cycle as a tool for addressing inequalities in research. Additionally, councils have broadened their GEI considerations to include factors that intersect with gender, such as age, socio-economic status, geography, and disability. 

However, until now, the councils’ efforts to integrate GEI analyses in the research funding processes were hampered by limited funding. The collaborative sessions at the workshop allowed the councils to support one another’s efforts to define their next steps towards gender transformation. 

The intersectional gender continuum

On the first day of the workshop, after pitching and discussing their proposals, the councils met to reflect on their respective starting points for addressing gender inequality in grant-making and research. Facilitated by Lyn Middleton, Heidi van Rooyen and Pilela Majokweni of the Human Sciences Research Council, the session was designed to be a supportive discussion recognising the validity of varying starting points towards gender transformation.

The GEI project conceptualises gender transformation as a continuum, where the effects of policies, programmes and activities range from negative to transformative (See Figure 1). A gender transformative approach aims to address the root causes of inequality and reshape power imbalances in research. 

As the HSRC’s Ingrid Lynch and colleagues write in a 2022 report on intersectionality in grant-making, thinking about gender transformation in this way acknowledges that gender disparities and responses vary greatly across national, institutional and social settings. Additionally, a workshop participant observed, the scope and impact of proposals that the councils put forward differed depending on their mandates. Some councils are purely funding agencies, while others are also responsible for “the entire coordination and governance of research and innovation activities in the country,” she said.

“The continuum helps us recognise the various options that are open to us. You can only start where you can start… so there’s no judgment,” Van Rooyen said. The councils took some time to position their proposals on the continuum, represented with coloured paper squares on the floor. Most positioned themselves in the middle of the continuum.

At the start of the spectrum are ‘gender blind’ approaches to grant-making, which perpetuate gender inequalities and bias by ignoring or dismissing gender differences. Gender aware approaches, by contrast, acknowledged gender differences in research without actively addressing them.

The HSRC’s Pilela Majokweni pointed to the importance of considering interacting social factors when shifting from gender awareness to responsiveness. “We must be very intentional about the work that we’re doing,” she said. For instance, “Do we know who’s in the room?… Is it just women, or is it disabled women from rural areas? Because if we’re intentional and specific enough, then it also moves us towards the gender transformative part that we’re trying to get to.” 

Many councils positioned their proposals between ‘aware’ and ‘responsive’. Asked to reflect on this position, Nsama Mataka from the National Science and Technology Council in Zambia, “We believe there are certain aspects that we are addressing with regards to gender, but we are not yet there. Even as we are planning to develop our policy, we feel it should be able to respond to some of the gaps that exist.”  

Gender-responsive 

Councils with gender-responsive practices attend to the differing needs and experiences of women in research. Generosa Simon, from the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology in Namibia, stated that the council had established frameworks to address gender inequalities, including research calls meant for specific groups. She added that other research institutions also had measures in place to promote inclusivity in the sector.  

The journey towards transformation also took place within the organisations themselves, Van Rooyen said. “So, there’s the work that you might try and do ‘out there’ in terms of as a funding organisation trying to influence the funding mechanism [to be] gender responsive [and] more inclusive, and then there’s that work that you do internally as a funded organisation.” The Research Council of Zimbabwe, for instance, took steps to ensure women’s equal representation in decision-making spaces, including the council’s board and grant review panels.

As councils’ approaches become more transformative, they began to respond to social and structural roots of inequalities. “As you move along that continuum, you’re starting to ask more questions and do more things that address the ‘why’,” Van Rooyen said. “Why is there a difference? What are the factors that influence the ways in which we hold men and women differently in this organisation?” 

Towards transformation

Cephas Mensah from the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation in Ghana shared that they were in the process of reflecting on how policies at the national level translate into mainstreaming gender in the research sector. Ghana had made some progress: for instance, he noted, the country now has more female than male doctors. However, he acknowledged ongoing challenges to women’s participation in science and emphasised the need for awareness-building and training programs to promote intersectionality within the research sector.

 “Unconsciously, researchers design and implement research, and they don’t integrate this aspect,” his colleague added. “So, our project is to build capacity, and we are hopeful that it will bring sustainable change to the Ghana research and evaluation ecosystem.” 

A gender transformative approach might include actions to change the systems and structures that underpin ongoing gender inequality. The council in Senegal has, for instance, worked with national partners to advocate for the mainstreaming of gender infrastructure across all government departments, including higher education. Over time, these actions pave the way for meaningful and lasting change by going beyond ‘symptoms’ of gender inequality to address underlying root causes.

After a period of refinement, the councils submitted their proposals for funding on 8 April, 2024. One of the key outcomes that the GEI team envisions from the project is the development of a roadmap for integrating GEI analysis into research funding policy and practices. The experiences of the participating councils will inform suggestions for adapting the roadmap to local contexts.

Written by Andrea Teagle for Jive Media Africa. Jive Media Africa is the communications partner on the SGCI GEI project.