SWIFT female scientists: Marian Amoakowaah Osei interview

As part of African SWIFT actions to promote female participation and gender balance in its activities, and to attract more women in the fields of science and meteorology in general, we asked some of SWIFT African female scientists to reflect on their experiences of working in this field, including any barriers that they might face, and tell us their career development stories.

In this post we share the interview with Marian Amoakowaah Osei from Ghana. Marian is currently working at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and is involved with SWIFT Work Packages (WP-R) 2, 3 and 4, related to forecast evaluation, satellite remote sensing and nowcasting, respectively.  Marian answered questions related to their motivation to start a career in meteorology, their opinions about the state of meteorological research in Africa, the main barriers for women in forging scientific professional careers in sub-Saharan Africa and in Ghana, and how programmes like African SWIFT can help other women in the scientific world.

                            Marian Amoakowaah Osei

1. How & why did you get into this career?

My journey into a career in the field of meteorology has been quite an interesting one. As a young child, growing up in the capital of Ghana (Accra), my father was determined to give me the best of education although financially, we were not well to do. He therefore enrolled me in a private, international school, which in Ghana are known to educate children better than those of the public schools. At the basic school (primary class four in the year 2000), I had my first encounter with the word “meteorology” from my teacher who was taking the class through a spelling bee. I was intrigued by this word and looked up the meaning and realised it had to do with weather.

At that instant, I thought to myself that becoming a meteorologist would be an exciting job for me in future. I was later told it would be difficult to obtain such a job in the country since there were no degree programmes that offered meteorology at the university level in Ghana. Although I was deterred by this revelation, I continued to enjoy looking up to the sky, and admiring clouds just for the fun of it. I remember spending most of my free time reading a textbook from the school library, “Focus on Science: Exploring the Physical World” by Frank J. Flanagan and enjoying especially the chapter on weather and physical interpretation to weather phenomena. Due to my interest in science, I undertook General Science at the senior high school level (in the year 2006 to 2009) and thought it would be best if I change my career path into medicine.

However, I observed at this level that my grades in physics were always better than biology and I enjoyed the former more than the latter. Fortunately, my dreams of becoming a medical doctor was crashed because my grade from the West African Secondary School Exams (WASSCE) were not good enough for admission into medical school. During my application to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in 2009 for a bachelor’s degree, I observed through their list of accredited programmes, the introduction of the Meteorology and Climate Science course. I was over-joyed and it seemed that my dream of obtaining a career in meteorology was finally becoming a reality. I was admitted in 2010-2014 for the bachelor’s programme, 2015-2017 for a master’s degree and 2017 for a doctoral degree all in the field of Meteorology and Climate Science. Since this has been my passion from my childhood, I have never regretted this choice and I am excited to be part of the wonderful group of meteorologist both in academia, research and the Met. Operational centers. I feel so keen on increasing my knowledge in the field and improving my skills especially in forecasting at the operational centers to become one of the best for my country and the world at large.

2. How would you describe the state of meteorological research and advancements in Africa?

I believe there has been great strides made in recent years in meteorological research. Co-operation between the operational centers and academic institutions has served as learning grounds and knowing of research gaps that have been observed by the operational centers. On the other hand, research in the academic institutions has greatly improved due to the freely available access to datasets such as from model outputs, reanalysis or satellite estimates over regions in the continent which otherwise has no or sparse data network for meaningful studies into atmospheric events. Researchers are also being equipped with state-of-the-art research skills (most of which were obtained outside of the continent) which upon return to their respective African countries has contributed a lot in atmospheric research. Another aspect in this advancement is the availability of high performance computational facilities which although are few (South Africa and Ivory Coast; probably in other countries not mentioned) aid in faster processing of outputs from climate models. Collaborations between African meteorological scientists and international partners in joint undertaking of projects such as SWIFT, DACCIWA, AMMA and QWECI are also avenues which has helped to advance atmospheric research over the continent.

3. What do you think the main barriers are for women in forging scientific professional careers in sub-Saharan Africa?

Well though rigorous efforts are being made to empower women in science, it is still a male-dominated world. Most careers in science are still being linked to “a man’s job” more than “a woman is equally eligible to do it’s job”. For instance, a discipline like Physics and Engineering are mostly thought to be for men. The few women bold enough to venture into such disciplines may be looked down upon by the dominated males in the area. The women in science are not properly and adequately motivated by other women in the field. Some women are discouraged by peers and even family to take on lesser roles in science. To rise through positions in a particular field for women require an extra effort when the competition is against other males. In the nutshell, most barriers for women are the lack or inadequate motivation, discouragement, and lack of self-confidence to proudly stand firm and compete fairly in a scientific chosen field of career.

4. What do you think the specific issues are in your home country for female scientists in advancing their careers?

Inadequate female mentors to coach women in science for the various scientific disciplines. Lack of confidence in women to take up careers in science or scientific roles. Women in Ghana are not adequately motivated to fight for their scientific rights. One pitfall in the educational system in Ghana is the inability to tailor students towards scientific areas in which they have passion for. Most women find themselves in scientific disciplines in which they have absolutely no passion. For instance, there is a culture of children constantly being advised by parent and family when growing up to take up careers in medicine because it pays most in the country. Meanwhile the passion of the child might lie in chemistry or physics and not in any form of biological sciences. This ill-advice results in women in a situation of “square peg being fitted into round holes”; in careers they don’t enjoy.

Therefore it is important to educate parents in steering their children especially girls into taking careers which in science are towards their passion. This will help in empowering women in science instead of discouraging or being a barrier for them in pursuing scientific careers. Also, struggling in a male-dominated career, the courage and confidence of women in science competing with fellow men is usually translated to be arrogance on the part of the women by the men or society in general. There is also inadequate training of women to encourage them advance in their scientific disciplines. The crown of all barriers for women is the issue of marriage. Our culture somehow belittles women who are not married at a certain age, especially by 30 years. It has become the norm in Ghana that as a woman advances in her career especially in a scientific field, obtaining higher degrees, it becomes practically impossible to get a man to marry. This stereotyping of women who advance in science makes it increasingly unattractive for Ghanaian women to engage in science as they are scared of not being able to get a husband. Again, resulting issues from child birth implies most women have to stay home, or sacrifice the advancement of their education to care for a growing family, thereby struggling to balance career and family responsibilities. Finally, the issues of sexual harassment of women is also a challenge for women advancement in science and careers as a whole in Ghana.

5. How do you think programmes such as GCRF African SWIFT can help other women in a similar situation to yours?

Programmes like these foster close link and collaboration between female scientists who are under such projects. Women can be a source of strength to each other in dealing with both scientific and domestic issues. It gives opportunity for the women advanced in the field of the project to take on mentorship roles for junior ones and be an academic coach for them. These programmes also serve as fertile grounds for women to increase their knowledge in their scientific discipline in order to gain enough expertise to compete fairly with the male counter-parts. It also gives a sense of confidence to women of “not being alone” in the field as well as encourage each other into taking up more roles in science.