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Institutional Change and an Intersectional Approach to Supporting Women in Science

Global Food for Thought by Katelyn Jones
Zoe Schaeffer
A female farmer plants transplants at a farm in Pennsylvania

Ensuring women's access to information, training, and technology can ensure land and resources alike are used more sustainably.

Women in Agriculture

Researchers and practitioners alike are paying more and more attention to the gender dimensions of agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), women make up 50% of the agricultural workforce, serving diverse roles such as farmers and farm laborers, businesswomen, and community leaders. FAO maintains that women’s empowerment is essential to addressing the challenges of food security, agriculture, and rural development. 

Moreover, the World Bank notes that engaging women in agricultural research and development (R&D) is critical to attaining Sustainable Development Goal 2, which is primarily concerned with food security, aiming to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030. Ensuring women have improved access to information, training, and technology can impact food production and consumption so that land and resources alike are used more sustainably. And FAO estimates that if women had access to the same resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent. This increased yield could ultimately reduce the number of hungry people globally by 12-17 percent.

In light of evidence underscoring the need to engage and support women in agricultural R&D, and science more broadly, the  African Women in Agriculture Research and Design (AWARD) program convened the second annual Global Forum for Women in Science Education and Research (GoFoWiSeR) in Dakar, Senegal, this July (2019). The forum’s broad attendance highlights the increasing attention to supporting women in the sciences, especially in Africa. Over 300 participants attended from 29 countries, including Senegal, Kenya, South Africa, the United States, and Burkina Faso.

I was fortunate enough to attend GoFoWiSeR, experiencing first hand the electrifying energy around supporting women. The forum celebrated many programmatic successes in ongoing efforts to support women, including the noteworthy success of mentoring and scholarship programs, such as AWARD and the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering, and Technology (PASET). But conversations throughout the forum also emphasized that even more can, and should, be done.

As I explain below, participants made two key recommendations: First, programs must not only support women specifically (e.g., with scholarships and mentorship), but also strive to encourage social and institutional transformations of gender norms. Second, research funding structures need to shift to be more equitable and encourage gender responsive research. To further advance the conversation on supporting women, I suggest that programs and policies should consider aspects of women scientists’ identities beyond gender (e.g., ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, nationality, etc.).

Social and Institutional Change

Despite the proven efficacy of mentorship and scholarship programs (e.g., AWARD Fellows comprise 23% of female agricultural researchers in the 20 Sub-Saharan African countries covered by the program), GoFoWiSeR participants repeatedly indicated that more needs to be done to cultivate institutional and social change. Supporting a woman through a PhD program is meaningful, but her impact post-PhD is constrained by the formal and informal institutional realities she encounters. For example, if she ultimately accepts a position in a university or research institution that lacks attention to latent sexism in policies and norms, she will be less likely to thrive and more likely to leave the leadership pipeline in her career. One can only “lean in” and have an impact as far as the institution allows one to do so.

GoFoWiSeR speakers and attendees emphasized that to ensure that women are able to attain leadership positions, institutions must transform to be more inclusive via parental leave policies, regular assessment of funding practices to ensure equity, and intentional attention to supporting women through continued education and training. Institutions need to evolve from being “old boys clubs” to inclusive spaces in which women, and all employees, can thrive. Because, ultimately, policies that benefit women benefit everyone.

Equitable Research Funding Practices

Another key point made throughout the forum was that research funding practices need to give increased attention to the gender dimensions of funding decisions and the projects funded. The Global Research Council’s Gender Working Group reports that the majority of research institutions worldwide are focusing intentionally on creating more equitable funding practices. Ensuring that review committees undergo unconscious bias training has been particularly helpful, because it helps committees understand how they review applications for funding differently depending on an applicant’s gender and gives committee members tools to counteract those biases once they recognize that they exist.

Another excellent tool used by funding organizations such as the United States’ National Science Foundation has been requiring applicants to present the gender dimensions of their research project in their applications. This ensures that researchers adequately think through the ways that gender norms influence their research questions, methods, and processes as well as the different gendered consequences of their projects. Gendered Innovations, based at Stanford University, is one particularly useful tool to help researchers think through these dimensions. It provides research checklists as well as accessible educational resources (e.g., a brief explanation about the difference between sex and gender) for researchers. These shifts in funding practices not only strive to support equitable award practices, but also that researchers more rigorously consider the gender dimensions of their project and products. 

Additional Paths Forward

The above recommendations look at gender as the most important axis of identity to consider when striving for more inclusive institutional and research-funding practices. While this focus isn’t intrinsically bad, it is limiting and could ultimately hamper efforts to achieve equity. For example, a straight woman with no disability will have a categorically different experience in research than a queer woman with a disability.  Each woman faces unique challenges that require unique solutions. To ensure that programs are equitable, efforts must acknowledge the multiple ways that systems of oppression interact and shape a person’s experiences and opportunities. In other words, programs need to understand a person’s identity as intersectional, looking not only at gender, but also at race, ability, nationality, sexual orientation, and other facets of identity.

More rigorously addressing identity’s intrinsic intersectionality in institutional transformation and research funding practices is essential to ensure inclusivity and equity. The Association for Women in Science presents understanding intersectionality as necessary to achieving equity in STEM fields, recommending intersectionality to inform survey design, data collection, data interpretation, and advocacy. The future of supporting women in science, agriculture, research, and development, in Africa and globally, requires a more explicitly nuanced understanding of what it means to be a woman and recognition that a woman’s identity contains myriad axes of difference.

After witnessing the commitment to supporting women in science at GoFoWiSeR, I am confident that the paths towards more equitable science institutions and funding will continue to unfold and evolve. It is imperative, however, that those supporting these programs remain vigilant in their efforts. As I explained in my presentation at the forum, transformational change can only have the desired impact if we continually interrogate what, how, and why we are changing things. What works in one context may not work in another. And this kind of vigilance is necessary not only to create a more equitable world, but also, in the case of agriculture specifically, to ensure food security for all.

About the Author
Katelyn Jones
Nonresident Fellow, Global Food and Agriculture
Council expert Katelyn Jones
Katelyn Jones is a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and her research concerns gender politics in international organizations, and is especially focused on gender mainstreaming in policy formation and implementation.
Council expert Katelyn Jones