Action, not words, will empower Africa’s women scientists
- Cultural barriers can block African women from science careers
- Too much effort is expended on monitoring and debating gender imbalances
- Practical steps such as awards and mentoring should receive greater emphasis
Whichever way the case is argued and however many figures are bandied about to support that case, I find it incomprehensible that women in any part of the world are deprived from playing a significant role in contributing to scientific and technological development.
Concerns over the limited number of women scientists in Africa, and the short time they tend to stay in the profession, appear to be growing. I am often asked what I think the issues are and why so few female scientists take the plunge to climb the ladder to success.
I could reach for the oft-reported facts and figures that identify barriers such as the need for adequate childcare and a flexible work/life balance, and the limited opportunities and incentives for women who return to work after a career break.
I agree that these factors play a role. But I believe that the real issues go far deeper. First, Africa has certain cultural barriers in its traditions, policy processes and practices that need to be addressed. Second, and perhaps paradoxically, the time and resources being directed at ongoing dialogue and information gathering serve as a substitute to taking effective actions that address the issue.
Africa’s diverse cultures and traditions go some way to explain why the continent has won the world’s admiration. However, these same attractions bring their challenges, along with rather complex policies and practices.
“A lot more than brilliant dialogue is needed to increase gender equity, equality and empowerment.”
One challenge is the need to address gender issues throughout research and development operations, while leveraging the untapped potential of women in science, engineering and technology. Cultural barriers include male domination in leadership and influential positions.
Although figures vary, the percentage of female science graduates is rising in Africa. But the reality is that women are still largely under-represented in key areas of research and development. An alarming number of graduates are unemployed, undervalued and hardly considered for promotion in their respective workplaces.
Some may question the need for a debate. But it’s not enough to continue living in a fantasy world where we offer the same few women scientists as role models on worldwide platforms over and over again.
More than brilliant dialogue
Where it is being discussed, the topic of women scientists is taking centre stage in Africa. I welcome forums, conferences, ‘think tanks’ and ‘talk shops’ that are platforms for reflection and action. But, sadly, I have walked away from so many where very little, if anything, concrete has materialised.
A lot more than brilliant dialogue is needed to increase gender equity, equality and empowerment and ensure an integrated, developed and prosperous continent. One example of a positive initiative is the African Women’s Forum on Science and Technology (AWFST), an innovation network for transformational change for women that was launched by the African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS) Network in 2008.
This became an innovative mentoring programme, following the ‘Pay it Forward’ model, whereby influential female scientists can work with younger, less experienced female scientists on breakthrough innovations.
One of the programme’s findings, following an evaluation exercise at AWFST’s launch conference, is that women in Africa lack the critical mass to make an impact in their respective areas of expertise. And, as ATPS executive director Kevin Urama has pointed out, the continent is in great need of women’s ideas, skills and capabilities to help shape high-level policies.
A focus on actively empowering women scientists, with consideration for business opportunities, should be a key part of practical solutions.
This emphasis can be seen in another powerful catalyst for change and action: the South Africa-based organisation Leading Women of Africa (LWA). LWA focuses on real solutions and embraces the significant role that female scientists already play in various sectors such as agriculture, health, construction and housing.
This organisation has become an effective voice for innovation, business and the workplace. The Women in Entrepreneurship, Infrastructure and Sustainable Energy Development (WEISED) project, launched by LWA and the UK-based Global Women Inventors & Innovators Network, is a forum where women’s strong views on the effects of limited infrastructure and sustainable energy opportunities are getting louder.
Furthermore, LWA recognises the need to promote the growth and success of female African scientists, and to celebrate their achievements. Through its WEISED awards programme, it puts the spotlight on many of Africa’s remarkable but largely unknown female scientists — women who have devoted their time and expertise to contributing to society and humankind through fascinating work. A call for honorary awards specifically for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be launched in April.
It is clear that Africa must provide a new and significant vehicle for action to support a higher percentage of women who use science to participate in tackling the combined challenges and opportunities for transforming existing and future infrastructure in Africa. This will take more than dialogue — it will take action.
Bola Olabisi is the vice-president of the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs, CEO of the Global Women Inventors & Innovators Network and a TED Fellow. She can be contacted at [email protected], and on Twitter @Bola25