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Women in Health Research - an African perspective

prof refiloe masekela and dr reratilwe mphahlele

Dr Reratilwe Mphahlele (left) and Professor Refiloe Masekela (right) discuss working in health research as women in Africa.

Published: 24 May 2023

The first LMIC-based NIHR Global Health Research Professor

NIHR is committed to embedding equality, diversity, and inclusion in research, including gender equality at all levels. As our global health programmes have grown in recent years, there are now 350+ members of the global NIHR Academy. These include researchers of all career stages based in low and middle income countries (LMICs) and in the UK. We are proud that over 200 of these members are women.

The NIHR Global Research Professorships scheme has been running since 2018. It has specific eligibility rules that support and encourage applications from women. For institutions putting forward two nominees, at least one of these must be female.

The first four rounds of Global Research Professorships were open to research leaders based in UK institutions. In line with NIHR’s commitment to provide more direct funding to LMICs, the 2022 round was opened up to applications from researchers based at LMIC institutions. Twelve Global Research Professors are currently active, of whom eight are women, working on issues as diverse as HIV, hospital-acquired infections and global disability. 

This week, we announced the four new Global Research Professors awarded under round 5. These include the first LMIC-based NIHR Global Health Research Professor, Refiloe Masekela.

Professor Refiloe Masekela is Head of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and a leading authority on asthma in Africa. From 2017-21, she was a co-investigator on the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Lung Health and Tuberculosis in Africa (IMPALA). She is also co-leading the NIHR Global Health Research Group on Achieving Control of Asthma in Children In Africa (ACACIA).

She will use her new Professorship award to undertake clinical research to improve access to effective and affordable care for children and adolescents with asthma in Africa, and to create new opportunities for African early career researchers. Her research aims to improve access to effective and affordable asthma care for children.

We interviewed Prof. Masekela, and her colleague and PhD student Reratilwe Mphahlele who also works on the ACACIA project, to get an African perspective on the importance of women in science and health research.

1. What will this Global Health Research Professorship mean for your work?

Refiloe: As the first female Black African to receive this Professorship, I am humbled and excited. Asthma is a neglected disease in South Africa, where it affects 1 in 5 children. Conducting a clinical trial in a rural population will generate much-needed data that can be generalised to the least resourced settings in Africa and globally. We will also be able to strengthen research capacity with clinician and health economics PhDs, post-doctoral training and support posts.

2. Why do you think women are still under-represented in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields?

Rera: Many women excel in STEM subjects but are discouraged from going into STEM fields as these are often male-dominated, with few female role models and unsupportive environments.

Refiloe: Women are still under-represented for various reasons. These include workplace bias, gender pay inequities, family responsibilities and socio-cultural factors. It is thus critical to have role-models to bridge this gap in STEM fields. Trail-blazing women who are visible in these fields can open doors for younger women. In South Africa, there are now more female than male medical students, which is a big change. Diversity brings a richness of thoughts, ideas and innovation. The more diverse the team the higher chances of success in the research ecosystem and this requires gender parity.

3. In your experience, are women under-represented in research too?

Refiloe: Yes, absolutely. In LMICs, health research is largely under-funded and can be an after-hours activity for many researchers. Although underfunding affects men and women equally, women are often left behind. This is because women face competing priorities of family and home, and lack protected research time.

Rera: Yes. When women are under-represented in research, health issues and advancing treatments that directly impact women become neglected. It is important to support women in research in LMICs as health disparities here have the greatest impact on women and children.

4. Have you experienced bias as a researcher and how has this impacted your career?

Refiloe: Yes, as a black African female doctor, researcher and academic leader, I have experienced a lot of bias from colleagues and peers. Strangely, this has been positive in some ways. It has made me strive for excellence in all I do. I have also tried to be a good mentor and role-model to younger women. I want to bring the elevator down for them to achieve more in their careers.

Rera: As a female researcher from an LMIC, I have faced funding and research bias. This problem has affected my career and that of many other researchers in Africa. However, I have recently experienced an improvement, working with NIHR and other partners. I am now collaborating with national and international stakeholders who appreciate that diversity and inclusion improve the quality of global health research.

How have you overcome these challenges, and what advice would you give to other women?

Refiloe: Excellence, empathy and breaking glass ceilings! I have been blessed with wonderful mentors who believe in me and my abilities. They have supported me throughout my career, helped me to trust myself and overcome bias. I am a proud feminist who does not believe that I have limitations due to my gender. Women are very capable and should never believe that they cannot achieve anything. Be your own spokesperson and be heard!

Rera: Do not allow a shallow perspective based on gender to determine what you can or cannot do. Embrace your gender, and focus on your goals, ambitions and work ethic. Speak up against sexism and bias in any field of work. I believe female researchers can help create a balance in scientific knowledge generation and capacity building alongside other researchers as equals. We can drive societal change by becoming the change we want to see in the world.

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