Dr Barbara Burmen's Story #WomeninScience

Dr Barbara Burmen is a medical doctor, an epidemiologist and doctoral student in public health. She works as a Senior Research Officer and the HIV and TB Implementation Science lead at the Kenya Medical Research Institute. Her current roles include the use of routine programmatic data and research data to improve health programme performance and ultimately health outcomes.

What are your experiences of being a woman working in science/research?

A science career has provided me with numerous opportunities; by working with more experienced scientists I have to successfully draft concepts to attempt to solve population health challenges. Together we have made applications for funding opportunities as well as had to mentor persons in my charge. Being in receipt of research funding not only benefits population health, but also provides the research team I work with a chance for career growth and a source of income.

Why is it important for women and girls to pursue science/research?

There exists a myriad of problems that ought to be addressed; whatever problem is prioritized and solutions generated to address it will depend on the gender of the scientists at that time.

When women are involved in science, research is more likely to address problems related to women’s health and welfare and solutions generated are more likely to be gender inclusive.

Subsequently, women are likely to receive better quality health care. Similar results have been observed where there are women in leadership positions.

How did you get involved in supporting gender mainstreaming/supporting women researchers?

We ensure that the studies we conduct are gender inclusive and data is analyzed and presented with respect to gender.

I have provided career and mentoring support in both professional and personal lives of my supervisees and colleagues of both genders. I believe gender mainstreaming should not imply focusing on one gender with the exclusion (or disadvantage) of the other.

I have also had some no-nonsense female mentors. Being a woman myself, I have been able to see beyond stereotypes that may cloud others’ perceptions of such female mentors and subsequently learnt a lot from them.

What particular challenges have you seen women in academia face?

Although we have been raised in a more gender-equal educational environment, we are often shocked to find that the gender dynamics in the workplace still resemble those experienced by our mothers. Women face the challenges of having their opinions challenged because of their gender and are usually bypassed for promotions and other opportunities in favor of their male colleagues.

Women in academia have to take career breaks to tend to family, which sometimes may hamper the pace of their career growth. Women also do not have the advantage of ‘after-hours’ networking on a regular basis since the majority have to tend to family duties concurrently with developing their career.

How can those challenges be addressed?

Thankfully, many things have been done to attempt to reduce gender imbalances in the sciences. I will attempt to list a few of them.

Affirmative action in both academia and leadership positions is very vital in promoting gender inclusivity. Years back, a candidate had to score a minimum aggregate score and minimum of 47 of 48 points in core subjects to qualify for entry into medical school. Female candidates with a score of 46 points were also admitted. For the first time in years, both genders were almost equally represented. Although the opponents of this strategy may view this strategy as impartial, they may not appreciate that a score of 46 points is hardly an easy feat to accomplish and that the affirmative action ends at admission. Each candidate, irrespective of gender, ought to go through medical school and complete all the pre-requisite requirements on an equal footing.

The Kenyan government now supports a paid maternity leave of 90 calendar days, which is very useful in aiding the development of the newborn, the recovery of the mother and opting for family by career Kenyan women. The European Research council factors in career-breaks for female candidates who have to make applications for fellowship opportunities; it allows a period of 1.5 years per child for a female candidate so that she is not unduly disadvantaged by opting to have a family.

What advice do you have for anyone trying to redress the gender imbalance in science/research?

Addressing the gender imbalance does not only benefit women by increasing their numbers in critical professions or positions of power, it also benefits institutions and societies.

Women bring their unique perspective to science, which differs from males, to science and this leads to an increase in the range of inventions and breakthroughs.

Women are also more socially aware than men and foster more "communal" qualities (fostering good relations to build community, creating an inclusive environment), which can yield "immensely positive" result in scientific research. It is no wonder that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability.

If you could give a tip to a woman or girl starting out in research what would that be?

Go for any opportunities that you are qualified for; after all, the worst that could happen is “a polite rejection”. Each application you make is an opportunity to reflect on your career path and sharpen your skills to make the next (and maybe successful) application.

A famous study by HP came to the startling conclusion that women were not applying for a promotion unless they met 100% of the requirements while men will happily apply if they only meet 60% of the requirements.

Develop a supportive network both at work and at home; be willing to ask for and accept help both at home and in the workplace. Find time to mentor others and always know in the back of your mind that you are an inspiration to other women (and men alike) who are known or unknown to you.

Above all, be exceptional at what you do, and your gender will not matter!

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