Some Highlights from the April Invited Session: Progress and Challenges for Women Physicists in Africa, Asia and the Middle East

Cherrill Spencer, Past Chair of FIP

FIP invited three senior women physicists to come to Columbus, Ohio to tell us about the progress and challenges for women physicists in parts of the world distant from the USA where you might have thought there were no women working in physics, or not enough to generate any statistics. This article reports some of the many interesting facts we learnt during this invited session X06 at the APS April 2018 meeting. All three slide presentations are posted on the APS website and their URLs are given below.

The first speaker was Professor Ibiyinka Fuwape, Vice Chancellor of Michael and Cecilia Ibru University, Delta State, Nigeria. The Vice Chancellor (=the University’s CEO) is the winner of this year’s APS Marshak Lectureship. She is also a theoretical physicist specializing in nonlinear dynamics and has been Nigeria’s Team Leader for the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) Working Group of Women in Physics (WIGWIP) since 2002. She has attended all six International Women in Physics Conferences where she presented Nigerian efforts to encourage more women to stay with careers in physics.

Fuwape’s talk was titled “Women in Physics in Nigeria and other sub-Saharan African countries: Progress and Challenges”. She pointed out there are 46 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and she presented information on women physicists in the following: Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Many African governments have realized the need to harness the contribution of their women population in scientific fields and therefore are putting in place mechanisms to encourage and retain more women in science in general. Fuwape mentioned several programs for interesting girls in physics and keeping women in physics, for example younger women physicists are being mentored by older women using “Whatsapp”, a popular social media platform. Nigeria has held three “Women in Physics” conferences since 2011. Their “modest” efforts have yielded some results including three Nigerian women physicists winning Elsevier Foundation Awards for Women Scientists in the Developing World in 2015. To see some statistical data and descriptions of other programs look at Fuwape’s slide presentation here:

A problem with the education systems in most African countries is that large fractions of the girls’ population do not go to school, at least not past 10-11 years old. To deal with this Ghana has set up science clinics for girls where they do hands-on activities, meet women role models and take excursions to places of scientific interest. Kenya now has free primary education and subsidized secondary education which has led to higher enrollment of girls in both primary and secondary schools. Kenya has set up the Kiriri Women’s University of Science and Technology, which is the only Female University in East, Central and Southern Africa. The number of women physicists in Tanzania has been very low; the lack of job opportunities reduces the interest of students in studying physics. Nevertheless the female physicists at the University of Dar es Salaam have organized outreach activities such as : high school visiting, giving invited talks at prize giving day ceremonies, inviting students to attend a research week at the University, and science camps for A-level science students with their teachers. In Uganda It is hoped that with the introduction of scholarships that include women after the child bearing age, more women can pursue higher degrees in physics. The lack of job opportunities in Zambia and Zimbabwe keeps down the number of women studying physics, they are afraid of unemployment. Of the 13 universities in South Africa with departments of physics all but one have at least one woman on the faculty; the promotion of women physicists along the career ladder proceeds slowly and a Women in Physics in South Africa Association was set up in 2006 to improve the climate for women.

The second speaker in session X06 was Professor Rohini Godbole, she is a theoretical particle physicist and a professor at the Centre for High Energy Physics at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India. Her talk was on “Women Physicists in India and other Asian Countries”. She has been very active in the topic of women in science, especially since the first IUPAP international conference on women in physics in 2002 where she was an invited speaker. Subsequent to her participation in that conference she founded the Women in Science Panel of the Indian Academy of Sciences (Bangalore), and brought out a study report on Women in Science in India on behalf of the Indian National Science Academy. Her presentation (her slides can be reached here: covered the status of women in physics in India, Australia, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. She noted there are cultural and economic differences among these countries and that those differences affect the participation of women in physics and the efforts to improve the numbers.

In India the participation of women in studying science or for that matter in teaching science, at all levels, is not low at all. However, the number of women doing science is much smaller than the other two cases. Further it is even less when one considers decision making positions in this context or even presence in the more elite Indian institutes. In 2016 40% of all the Ph.D's (all subjects) were women!

In India the pot starts leaking AFTER the Ph.D. Women have 20-25% of the tenured jobs and grants in physics but the fraction in elite institutions is less than 5-10%. The number of women in the Indian Academy of Sciences is gradually increasing, it is now 12 out of 209; the number of women principal investigators is also increasing.

Godbole considered the two types of remedies to improve this situation: policies and societal attitudes.

One set of policies has dealt with helping women come back into the physics workforce after a break, or using role models to show that they didn’t need to leave in the first place. In order to gather data so as to design solutions to the problem of trained women leaving science the Women in Science Panel (WISP) of the Indian Academy of Sciences carried out a survey of many Indian women scientists. The conclusions were: a large fraction (about 50%) perceive family responsibilities (child care/elder care) as the major reason for not continuing in Science, but a substantial fraction (20%) also pointed to disenabling organizational factors ( lack of women mentors/ colleagues, lack of women friendly policies at work place etc.) as a reason. The survey’s report can be read here: In 2004 the WISP asked 100 successful women scientists who worked in modern India to write what helped and hindered them: “Lilavati's Daughters” is the title of the resulting book, it has been translated into many Indian languages. Godbole and others have also edited a book for young girls called “The Girl’s Guide to A Life in Science”. Descriptions of other Indian programmes and efforts to change policies can be found in Godbole’s slides.

The statistics of faculty women in natural and physical sciences in Australia show the same decreasing percentages of women as observed in all countries as one looks at junior lecturers through full professors. There was no increase in these percentages from 2001 to 2012 and recently Australian universities have started a new program called SAGE: Science Australia Gender Equity, which is a more concerted approach to increasing the participation of women in science.

Using the percentage of women who are members of the Japanese Physics Society (JPS) as an indication of their general participation in physics in Japan we see much lower numbers than in other Asian countries: 2% in 1985 increasing to 5% in 2009. A new program called ATHENA: Acceleration of Theoretical and Experimental Research Networking for Career Advancement of Women in Physics, has set up special symposia and mentoring workshops to improve this participation.

In Korea 38% of the science Ph.Ds are awarded to women, but the percentage in physics is much smaller. The Korean government has several proactive schemes to change this situation, starting with encouraging high school girls to study physics. Although about 19% of the scientific workforce is women, they occupy 33% of the non regular positions. The Korean culture plays a big role in the employment of women: considering all the sciences 84% of unmarried women continue in the scientific workforce after their higher education, but only 50% of married women continue working. The Korean government has some special schemes and incentives in place, hoping to reach 30% women in the scientific workforce by 2020. In Taiwan there is the usual reduction in the fraction of faculty women in higher-up positions, but the fraction in lower positions has been increasing over the years. The Taiwanese Government has taken special measures such as extending the tenure clock for women, and special grants. Godbole’s overall conclusions are, the Asian countries she investigated have populations of women physicists and astrophysicists ranging from less than 5% in Japan to 20-25% in India. The fractions at higher level academic positions are much smaller than the junior positions but in all countries there is a rising trend; needed changes in societal attitudes and policies are happening too.

The 3rd presentation was on “The Status of Women Physicists in Egypt and the Middle East” which was prepared by Emerita Professor Mona Mohsen of the Physics Department in the Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt. Professor Mohsen has engaged in a wide range of physics subjects since she earned her Ph.D in experimental nuclear physics at the Technical University in Dresden, East Germany in 1976. For example she has measured the radioactivity dose around ancient monuments and prepared flame retardant polymers for cable insulation applications. She has been recognized with various prizes from her university. She has been the team leader for the IUPAP’s Women in Physics of Egypt since 2014. Unfortunately Professor Mohsen was unable to travel to Columbus on account of having had cataract surgery a few days earlier, but she uploaded her slides to the presentation management system and I, Cherrill Spencer, chair of the session, presented them for her.

There are 18 countries in the so-called Middle East and Mohsen presented data and facts on women physicists in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. She presented information about Egypt first. It has a population of 91 million (2016 numbers) of which 51% are males and 49% are females. The share of women in the labor force in 2015 was 22.5% (by comparison Spencer mentioned women’s share in the USA workforce is 47%). The percentage of females enrolled in higher education in 2014/5 was 47.7%. There are 20 public universities with about 2 million students and she presented data on four of them: Alexandria (established in 1942), Ain Shams (1960), Sohag (1975) and Kafr El Sheikh (2009). At Ain Shams there were 5073 bachelors students enrolled in science in 2015/6, of which 64% were women, in computer science, 2318 students of which 36% were women and in engineering, 9858 students of which 27% were women. The percentages of women enrolled in languages, arts, commerce, pharmacy and medicine were all over 50% and law was 44%. Some of these percentages exceed the same numbers in the USA. The percentages of female students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in physics in 2015-2016 were 57% (Ain Shams), 37% (Alexandria), 49% (Sohag) and 71% (Kafr El Sheikh). The actual numbers are small, e.g. at Sohag : 69 men and 67 women, nevertheless, these percentages far exceed the USA figure of 19.5% of B.Sc in Physics earned by women in 2016. The female percentages remain similarly high for master’s degrees earned in physics at three of the universities over the 3 past academic years. Again the actual numbers are small, e.g. at Ain Shams in 2015-2016 12 males and 8 females earned master’s degrees in physics. The data can be seen in detail in Mohsen’s slides at During the same 3 years the female representation in doctoral physics degrees continued to be balanced with the males, aggregating 3 universities over 3 years: 25 men and 22 women got Ph.Ds in physics. (For comparison Spencer mentioned that in the USA 20% of physics Ph.Ds were earned by women in ~2016.) The data for female representation at various staff/faculty levels starts off well at the teaching assistant level, with ~50% at the 4 universities , but then it drops (using Ain Shams data) to 41% (lecturer), 26% (associate professor) and 21% (full professor) . This falling off is the same effect as reported by the other two speakers in many other countries in the world (and the USA). Mohsen commented on this striking gender imbalance at the full professor level thus: it emphasizes the challenges faced by women – the need to reconcile work and family responsibilities; in general the poor availability of research funds with the women not getting their fair share; the low income of scientists; the cultural considerations in Egyptian society, for example, men do not accept work positions that are under the leadership of a woman and there is a well-established idea that women must choose between being a woman and mother or being a successful physicist.

Labor laws have been developed to help women in the workforce, e.g.

  • Article 91: A working woman who has spent ten months in the service of the employer shall have the right to take a three month paid vacation upon delivering. Maternity Leave: Women are entitled a maternity leave up to three times during their period of service.
  • The working woman who breastfeeds has the right to two breaks of not less than half an hour and has the right to combine these two periods during the period of 24 months following the date of the situation.
  • Kindergarten: The employer must establish a nursery if there are 100 workers or more in one place of work. The conditions of the nursery are determined by a decision of the competent minister (article 94).

But these laws are not strictly followed, especially the one concerning nurseries at workplaces, so they have not helped (yet) women physicists in Egypt.

Tunisia’s population is 11.5 million, of which 50.5% are female and 25.6% of the workforce are women. The data on Tunisian women physicists came from the Carthage University in Tunis. Again, surprising percentages, compared to USA data: 43% of students studying for their 1st degree in physics are women, this drops to 31% of the Ph.D students. All the other fields of science have over 50% women Ph.D students. But when one looks at the female Grade A staff their percentage representations are all significantly less than the Ph.D percentages. These reduced percentages are reflective of the country’s struggles with unemployment: 19% of male graduates are unemployed and 41% of female graduates are without a job.

Morocco’s population is 34 million of which 51% are female and 30% of the workforce are female. The data about women scientists in Morocco came from Hassan II Casablanca University. In Morocco, the female population in science and physics has been growing in the last decade. However, the research population is dominated by men and the percentage of women researchers in higher education is declining. Looking at various decision-making positions in all the sciences there are very small percentages of women in those positions, e.g. 10% as head of laboratory and 11% as research project leader. Some universities in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are becoming aware of these inequalities and are getting involved in gender projects and programs such as the SHEMERA and TARGET projects. The SHEMERA project aims to support Euro-Mediterranean cooperation in a joint effort to strengthen the role of women in science and indeed in all spheres of life, more information can be found at The TARGET project promotes gender equality in particular by supporting structural change in the organisation of research institutions and in the content and design of research activities, more information can be found at

Mohsen’s conclusions and recommendations are:

Women in general are an untapped resource in the Middle East; although the percentages of female physicists in the Middle East continues to increase at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, as well as in the early stages of academic careers, the gender imbalance at the full professor and decision making positions levels is striking.

It is recommended to:

  • Identify and implement ways to aid women in balancing their career and family life, such as through strict application of the mentioned labor laws.
  • Eliminate gender stereotyping in schools, which implies that physics is not a suitable subject for girls.
  • Present more female role models in physics to encourage girls into physics because studying physics is for a powerful way to develop critical thinking and analytical ability.

Spencer notes that these recommendations, written for the Middle East, are applicable to all countries because none have achieved true gender parity at all levels of a physics career.

Women scientists winners

Five winners of the Elsevier Foundation Awards for Women Scientists in the Developing World, 2015: left to right: Rabia Sa’id of Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria, Dr Mojisola Usikalu of Covenant University, Ota, Nigeria, Dr Nashwa Eassa, Sudan, Dr Mojisola Adeniyi of the University of Ibadan , Nigeria, Dang Thi Oanh, Vietnam

Cherrill Spencer photo