Policy & Development

Africa’s science leaders have babies too

It has been difficult to accept, psychologically, that Maya is almost entirely my responsibility while she is a baby, and a breastfeeding one at that. In my mind, as a modern woman in a free and equal society, I had thought her care should be shared 50/50 between myself and her father Stephan. He, naturally, thought so too.

But that was unrealistic, and in fact modern society still does not accommodate that expectation. Maya needs to nurse, still now at 8 months old, about every 3 hours. She can of course eat a bit of food or have milk or formula from a bottle every now and then if I have to be away longer for work, but it becomes burstingly uncomfortable for me because my milk production carries on like normal. And if it happens too often, my milk supply will start to decrease and she may wean earlier than I would like.

Stephan plays with Maya during ASLP 2018 while on a work call.

I’m not alone in dealing with this challenge. In fact, I am luckier than most to have a lot of flexibility and support – Stephan cannot help to feed Maya, and he does not have the same instincts about her needs and how to comfort her that come from hours of mother-baby bonding time. But he does everything else for our family to make sure that I can put her needs first, and that I can still meet most of my work commitments. Paul and Sibusiso, my fellow ScienceLinkers, also provide a constant supportive environment that makes room for Maya’s needs and my needs as her mother.

And I’ve realised, thanks to all these modern men in my life, that if we create space for family life at work, it is not so difficult to accept, socioeconomically, that babies need their mothers. I phrase it this way because I know of few companies and professional environments in South Africa that acknowledge the difficulty mothers face choosing between an income and taking care of small babies. Or choosing between a career and a family.

This is the gender gap, and in South Africa and Africa it is truly gaping. Stephan and I are both scientists by training, and we work in the science industry every day, so this is where we’ve experienced the gap. A fellow biochemistry graduate once told me she was asked in a job interview if she was planning on having children soon; companies should not be allowed to get away with this sort of discrimination. I too, I must admit with shame, have been guilty of thinking about work this way before I had my own daughter.

Many researchers in Africa are in the early stages of a promising science career when they start a family, but it is so often the women scientists who then have to choose between continuing their career or taking care of their children. They might have to choose between staying with the baby or attending a career-defining conference abroad.

Smeetha Singh poses with Maya during ASLP 2018.

So I felt sunshine in my heart when I saw that the Africa Science Leadership Project (ASLP) brought Dr Dalia Seed out to South Africa with her baby, and a friend to help care, so that she would not miss out on this career opportunity because of being a new mother.

The idea was Smeetha Singh’s and Bernard Slippers’. “We’d  like to do our part to close the gender gap in science in Africa,” explains Smeetha, “so ASLP projects focused on gender is one way, and we also select 50% female fellows each year. But we realised we had to do more, so making sure that Dalia could come was important for us.”

And when Smeetha invited me to speak to the fellows about science communication for leadership as I had been doing for a couple of years, she asked if I would like to bring Maya with. She said that there are plenty of people to help take care of her while I conduct my session.

Having never been offered the possibility to bring Maya along to a work environment before, I was unsure if she really meant it or was just offering as a courtesy. So I asked Stephan to come with to take care of Maya just in case.

We went, and we were welcomed. Again, it struck me at how easy it can be for mothers, their babies and everyone present if the environment is simply accepting and accommodating. No-one thought it was strange, no-one was irritated, and Maya was her friendly and observant self, welcomed by the entire group. I did my session without any distractions while she and Dad looked on, we joined the fellows for lunch, I nursed Maya in between, and I continued with my session with baby in the sling, fast asleep, as Stephan had to go attend to other work commitments.

ASLP 2018 supports mothers – left to right: Petrina Kapewangolo, Anina Mumm, Dalia Seed

Apart from accommodating me and Dalia, Smeetha said they tried to make sure all of the travel and resting needs of several other pregnant fellows present were taken care of too.

One fellow said he would tell his wife back home about how I brought my baby with to work. But it was really not difficult for me, because Smeetha and the rest of the ASLP group and fellows made the whole experience feel like just a normal occurrence.

Imagine what a wonderful world it would be for mothers, and their children who grow up to be men and women – fathers and mothers; people; society – if this kind of thing with just a normal occurrence indeed.


Ryma Abassi plays with Lego at ASLP 2018

I thought about that as I looked around the room where half of the fellows from all over Africa were women. I took a photo of Dr Ryma Abassi, at that point engaged in a creative Lego activity, in the hopes that one day when I show it to Maya, she would see just a normal occurrence of a woman playing with Lego, a woman as a successful scientist and leader, and would nothing unusual of pregnant women and young mothers who go about their careers in a normal way with the support of their partners and colleagues.

Thank you Smeetha, Bernard, ASLP and Stephan for an eye-opening, hope-bringing day.

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