IWD 2022: ‘Gender bias is a galling word in a world where women seek to be heard and their ideas appreciated'

08 Mar 2022
Naomi Riithi image

Naomi Nyambura Riithi, who received an RSTMH grant in partnership with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in 2019 for her research into sleeping sickness in Kenya, explains in this Q&A for International Women’s Day why we need to #breakthebias in global health. 

Why do you believe it is important to champion women and break the bias in the global health/tropical medicine sector?

In the recent past, we have witnessed this unusual gaping chasm in gender equality, a point in case, the STEM fields. This calls for immediate and incisive action to bolster the women in our society to take up positions in key discussions revolving around research, policy making and global health programmes. Women are considered to be tender-hearted and inherent carers from a family standpoint. This makes ladies out there instrumental in the fight against tropical diseases/global health for a better tomorrow.

In your experience, how does gender bias play out in the world of global health and tropical medicine?

Gender bias is a galling word in a world where women seek to be heard and their ideas appreciated. Egalitarian campaigns aimed at spearheading neutrality and minimal gender prejudice have been faced with an antithetical atmosphere. In the brevity of both my research career and lifetime, I have seen women labour twice more than their peers to make a considerable impact in the field of tropical medicine. This leaves many talented and passionate women prematurely quitting because the working environment is smothering rather than soothing. Not to forget, some of these women have families to take care of, yet the playing ground is set to level or equal to their peers. Is this not a game for the chosen few, and a ‘red card’ to the many who are initially disadvantaged? To ensure inclusivity, I reckon women should be appreciated and not pressed down to ensure proper research and capacity building in global health research. 

Are there any steps you think we need to actively take to ensure the global health/tropical medicine community treats men and women equally?

Equality begins with you and me. Female or male, this ongoing bigotry of power dynamics, ends and starts with us. Working environments, for example, should develop policies that foster inclusivity and minimise gender bias. It should be appreciated however many women come to the playground to showcase their abilities, they carry further responsibilities outside the research field. An incentive programme to motivate them at work should be set up, for example daycare schemes for mothers. Besides that, women should be included in decision-making discussions and provided with proper mentorship programmes to break the closet mentality. Lastly, the workload should be normalised between the gender and a fair ground approach when giving accolades, especially in scientific discoveries.

Who would your role model be in global health and tropical medicine and why?

Dr. Ulrike Fillinger a Senior Scientist at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) tops my list of role models. 

She has dedicated her life to mentoring a considerable number of students in proper research ethics, leave alone empowering them to find their Element. It comes with great pleasure and utter humility to be part of her research group as every day, am challenged to better myself.  Recently, I was lucky to upgrade this mentorship package to supervisor and I must say I am impressed! I look forward to learning a lot from her in terms of better work ethics and the immense knowledge she possesses in tropical medicine research.  

What role can men play in breaking the bias and advancing the course?

For men to break this damming loop of bias, they need to be at the forefront in setting policies that preclude their selfish interest and embrace equality and fairness in the work environment. It starts when men understand that being in a position of power doesn’t mean using their powers to demean others, but most importantly empowering them to rise to your level. 

What advice do you have for any women that may be facing gender bias during their careers?

As you trek through these unchartered waters be encouraged that you are paving the way for other young girls/women who are searching for role models. Your path may seem tough and all odds may seem against you, but stay strong for you are a woman and conqueror too. 

Furthermore, it comes with great satisfaction to say this, that even the greatest of ‘men’ were young wee boys nurtured in the hands of loving and kind women. Yes, you and I are the source of change and good things for the future. Hold on and remember gender bias is just here for a little while. The next Nobel Laurette maybe you, if we steer this ship of equality as steady as possible through the tumultuous wave of prejudice and favouritism.  

Naomi Nyambura Riithi received an RSTMH grant in partnership with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in 2019 for her research into sleeping sickness in Kenya.

The RSTMH Early Career Grants Programme – formerly called the RSTMH Small Grants Programme – is open for applications until 17:00 on the 29 April 2022. Applicants can apply for a grant of up to £5,000 (GBP) to deliver a project over one year. The projects can be on any topic related to tropical medicine and global health, from across the research spectrum of lab, translation, implementation and policy. 

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