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Miriam Conteh-Morgan's story #WomeninScience

Miriam Conteh-Morgan is Head Librarian at the Institute of Public Administration and Management, a constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone. Previously at The Ohio State University, she returned to Sierra Leone in 2013. She is also one of the leaders in INASP’s Sierra Leone pilot project.

What is the gender situation like at University of Sierra Leone and what are you doing?

I am at senior management level and there are many times that I go to meetings and I am the only woman around the table. I’m comfortable with that - I grew up with five brothers - but it is very striking that there are only two of us women who are associate professors or professors at my institution. One of the other sites had until recently a female dean and some others may have one or two female heads of department but it was patently obvious that there weren’t women around at a senior level. And all the women in senior positions at our university spent much of their academic careers outside Sierra Leone; there are no home-grown female professors. In contrast, there are plenty of men in senior positions at our university who have gone through the promotion system.

There are a lot of women at the senior lecturer level so it would be nice to know what is keeping them from progressing further. I also sit on the university appointments committee and have seen situations where there were no women on the list of candidates.

This lack of women in senior positions was bothering me and I discussed it with a couple of colleagues. Coincidentally, the two women that I spoke with are the immediate past president and the current president of a national organization called 50/50 which wants equal representation in parliament. Together we convened a first meeting of “Women in Academia”. In this group we discussed the results of a study my deputy vice chancellor had done on women in an academic capacity in Sierra Leone, following up from a study he did seven years ago; he had found that the needle has not moved. We also watched the INASP video from University of Dodoma in Tanzania.

We realized we could benefit from mentoring tailored specifically to women, to create a comfortable space. We also discussed INASP’s Gender Toolkit. We thought we could do something with this on our own but sometimes this kind of thing is better coming from somebody from outside and I think we can all learn from others. With the more generic workshops we’ve been doing it has been easy to get senior male faculty to do that but there are so few women in senior positions that this is more difficult.

The network is just in University of Sierra Leone. The idea is to have the other institutions form something on their own campuses. I was thinking each campus could have their own committee and then we could have national dialogues on how we can support and strengthen each other.

What are the challenges for women in academia in Sierra Leone?

For early-career researchers, the main thing is the need for mentorship. This goes for everybody, not just for women.

However, it would be nice for women to have their own special mentorship to get them going because the world over I think we are all suffering from the same thing: there’s life and there’s work.

I also think many women - and I don’t exclude myself here - probably stop at masters level. That can more easily mesh with home life than if you are going for a PhD which would take you away from family. And in Sierra Leone, if you are an academic and your husband is not an academic that can pose problems if you have a PhD and your husband doesn’t.

Whatever career advancements or academic advancements I’ve made have all revolved around family life. For example, when training to be a librarian I didn’t do this full time but part time so then I could just do two classes a week and I would be sitting in my evening classes doing my grocery list as I needed to shop on my way home. Then you have to get home, help the kids with homework and so on. Even though I planned to do a PhD in linguistics I just couldn’t get the time to do it. Going into librarianship was the easier route. I think we all make those more compatible choices.

Another issue I saw in a manuscript I reviewed that looked at women in Nigeria across a number of universities; one of the conclusions was that even in the workplace it was the mummy figure that seemed to emerge. This is really relevant here in Sierra Leone because this is what people refer to you as: “Hey Mummy”. You are the mother figure and that is how you are seen and not so much in terms of your academic abilities.

What advice do you have for supporting gender equity?

One of the things we have talked about in our group is looking at university policies and trying to give them a gendered face, seeing how helpful or not they are towards women’s career advancement.

We have not pursued this yet because we are waiting for the university registry to complete a process of collating all the policies into a compendium.

Sometimes with moves to address gender issues there is a forcefulness, which I don’t think is a good tack because you want buy-in from the top. I believe in dialogue, still pushing your point but not in an adversarial way.

I think women should be encouraged but I’m very ambivalent about “affirmative action”. I don’t want to have women get to the top because they were pushed because of a policy. It has to be on merit, it has to be earned. But then if you can smooth the way to demonstrating merit, that helps. Concrete examples might be more release time to enable time for research, which is something the administration could think about. At my old institution in the US, for example, if you are a journal editor you get release time from teaching, your teaching time is reduced.

Another effort that a university could make to bring in more women, could be to offer research assistantships for those who were good students. That’s the easiest path to get people into the academic world and maybe they will stay on and grow into the profession.

What tips do you have for girls and young women about going into research?

When I do orientations, I tell them the academy is an option they should consider. I don’t think many of the young women I see think of science as an option. But maybe things are turning around; at our last congregation the vice chancellor remarked that more female students than male students graduated from one of the constituent colleges – a higher number than ever before.

Maybe also we should go further along the pipeline and go into secondary schools. I know that whenever I talk to girls at my alma mater I want them to see that going into academia is possible.

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