Rose Okuyo Obio is a Kenyan dietitian at the University of Nairobi and was one of the speakers at a webinar last month titled “Pursuing a PhD in Africa: Bridging the Gender Gap.” The webinar is organized by the Consortium for Training in Advanced Research in Africa (CARTA), a group of universities and research institutes that aims to advance research in African universities by sponsoring doctoral candidates, post-doctoral fellows and faculty development across seven African countries. More than half of the 228 PhD candidates currently sponsored by CARTA are women. Opiyo was part of the first group, from 2011 to 2015.
How has CARTA’s sponsorship of PhD studies helped your career?
I have tried many other scholarships before I succeeded in CARTA. I think my advanced age of 47 when I applied in 2011 was a red flag for many organizations. CARTA has a higher age limit than many other schemes. When I applied, the minimum age was 50 for women and 45 for men, although the policy has now changed to 45 for women and 40 for men.
This opportunity means that women can return to further studies after raising their children.
What other initiatives are helping to increase the number of women seeking PhDs?
I like that CARTA has a childcare support system. The caregiver is paid to accompany the researcher and their children when participating in training and programming. Caregivers can be the researchers’ spouses or mothers. We need to change the rules of the game in Africa if we want to increase the number of women researchers.
I didn’t take the opportunity to take care of the children personally because my kids were already teenagers. However, CARTA sponsored me at my local university, where I was able to keep a close eye on my children. I didn’t want to leave to study abroad and then come back to find them with completely different sons.
What are the challenges facing women researchers in Africa?
Pursuing a PhD as a mother, wife, and woman was challenging. I had to work harder than my male colleagues. Although my focus should have been on my Ph.D., I find that household responsibilities, as well as my husband and children, compete for my attention. My husband, for example, did not understand why I had to spend so much time working on my Ph.D.
Fortunately, I learned to juggle these responsibilities early in my career, when I got pregnant while undergraduate at Kenyatta University in Kenya. You need to divide your time well to meet the different activities. For example, I used the morning and evening to study and read, and did my lab research between 8 AM and 5 PM. My car was usually the last in the parking lot.
What advice would you give to young women interested in research?
Focus, focus, focus. It doesn’t matter at what stage of your life you are – whether you are young, old, or have children. If you lack focus, you will not be able to complete your course, whether it is a PhD or a master’s degree.
Also, do not work in isolation. Many female students withdraw when faced with challenges. But they need to talk to their colleagues. Fortunately for me, CARTA has a habit of checking on mates and lends a listening ear.
How can senior researchers motivate young women to pursue a PhD?
We need to show that our research helps people and provides solutions for society. Take, for example, the work I do to educate the community about the right foods to eat to reduce the incidence of disease.
Unlike the 1990s, when many people were undernourished, many Kenyans today eat a lot and have to deal with the after-effects. Can we find a solution by encouraging people to eat more of the local food available so that they can lead a healthier life? Eating healthy local foods, such as prickly pear melon (Cucumis metuliferus), mango and lemon, will eventually reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and health care costs. This is where I invest my energy.
Are there cultural attitudes you would like to see changed?
Yes, the societal belief that a woman’s office is the kitchen must change. Household chores like cooking should be a shared responsibility. Women must be supported to realize their dreams.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.