Q&A: ‘We can’t just fold our arms and watch inequalities’

Gassama final
Mame Yaye Kène Gassama, Chairperson of the African Union's high-level panel on Emerging Technologies (AU/Nepad) - Copyright: SDN

Speed read

  • Africa must build on young female population to achieve development
  • Attention to gender meets need for cohesion within scientific community
  • Business incubators for young girls one way to meet challenges facing the continent

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Women make up just under a third of all scientists in Sub-Saharan Africa (31 per cent), on par with the global average of 29 per cent. But this figure hides many disparities, which can be seen, for example, between South Africa's 43.7 per cent compared with Togo's 9.5 per cent.

On the political front, while the official rhetoric about the need to encourage more young girls to embrace scientific careers is commonplace, it is not often backed up with action.

The continuing gender gap, and the importance of the gender dimension in research and funding, are among the key topics in this interview with Mame Yaye Kène Gassama, Chairperson of the African Union's high-level panel on Emerging Technologies, ahead of the Gender Summit due to take place in London this month.

A former minister of research and current vice-president of the National Academy of Sciences and Technology of Senegal (ANST), Gassama calls on African governments to achieve a complete overhaul of the continent's approach of gender issues at the institutional level.

Why are African countries finding it so difficult to get more young girls to embrace science?

We're actually very committed to girls' education, in science and technology, because we have so many challenges ahead. These challenges relate to the demographic transition, as we are in a phase where we must anticipate the demographic dividend — that is, the economic growth potential that can result from shifts in the population’s age structure. The second challenge is climate change; we need to respond appropriately. The third challenge is laying down the foundations of a modern, efficient and sustainable agriculture, in order to feed the estimated 3 billion Africans projected for 2065. Finally, the fourth challenge, probably the most important, is the reduction of social inequalities. Knowing that women make up more than half of the African population, we must work with this unused potential, train girls in science and technology so that creativity and talent can flourish.

But how do we achieve this?

By proceeding to a radical paradigm-shift at [a] political level. We need an overhaul of the organisation of our societies, to focus on girls' education and women's empowerment in science and technology, because it is their voices that will make a difference and trigger Africa's social and economic transformation.

Why is there this sudden enthusiasm for parity in science and research?

The current trend meets the need for more cohesion within the scientific community itself. There are a number of areas, including medical research, where males serve as a reference for the design of new treatments and the understanding of various conditions. We eventually realised that this sexist prejudice has been the origin of several scientific errors. Had there been a critical mass of women to participate in some of this research, some of these errors could have been avoided; women would have said: "Beware, this assumption only applies to men, but for women, things are a little different”.

A few years ago, American scientist Londa Schiebinger, one of the pioneers of gender mainstreaming in science and research, launched the concept of gendered innovation, which harnesses the creative power of gender analysis for innovation. The paramount point is that considering gender can add a valuable dimension to research and lead it in new directions. Similarly, including [a] gender dimension in research can also encourage more women to pursue careers in science. So all in all, the objective is worth the effort, and this is perhaps about the survival of science itself.

In practical terms, what is preventing young African girls from embracing scientific careers?

Most often, it all relates to [the] perception of science. Girls say they are unsuited to science and mathematics. Lack of role models and fear of bias are also considered. That's why I wanted to show these girls that they have the potential to express their talent, their creativity through STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics]. But the fundamental problem probably lies in the way science is taught. Theory is not sufficiently related to daily practice. We have tried experiments with the Senegalese Academy of Sciences, introducing new ways of teaching, which link theorems to practice.

But that works for boys too…

Certainly, but experience has shown that with an appropriate level of practice, girls can be excellent.

You have this unique experience as Minister of Research of Senegal. If you were asked today to design a plan to get more girls in science, what would be your priorities?

I think we need to create centers of excellence where young girls would have the opportunity to conduct research in areas and on topics that fit the realities of everyday life in agriculture, health, nutrition, energy and development, for example. These are topics that can be articulated around programmes that girls can work on.

A few days ago, in Kigali, during the Africa Innovation Summit, I saw young girls who created their own companies. They know what they want, they know how to carry out their projects and it was fascinating to hear them talk. In my opinion, this is precisely the solution: create business incubators for young girls to come up with new ideas and meet the challenges facing the continent. All we need is the necessary impetus to trigger the launch. And I think that this ‘therapy’ — education in STEM, creation of rewarding companies — is the solution for Africa, in order to keep these young people on the continent, so that they make sense of their lives, and hope doesn’t necessarily become synonymous with [crossing] desert and sea [to start a new life in Europe]. This can only happen with full support — both political and financial — and [with] commitment from our countries and decision makers.

Are we not putting too much pressure on existing systems? No sooner has a campaign been launched to enrol the largest number of girls in school than we are now required to encourage them to embrace science.

Quite the contrary, actually: I think that both objectives can coexist harmoniously. As we encourage a large number of young girls to go to school, arrangements can also be made for them to develop their skills in various scientific fields. And this is not a gadget — these recommendations are based on scientific evidence. I think that not only Africa has the resources to put forward this policy, but also some strong assets to make it a success.

What are these assets?

A young, diverse and dynamic population. When we feel that there are social inequalities and we seek to rebalance and promote the unused potentials in our societies, we have a favourable environment for girls and women to engage in scientific studies. I believe the challenges we're facing should be seen as opportunities to train more, to build a critical mass that can have a decisive and lasting impact on our economies. At present, in Sub-Saharan Africa, we have an average of 31 per cent of women researchers, compared with the Arab world's average of 39 per cent and 45 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean. That is to say, we have a long way to go and we can count on a dynamic and creative population.

As research minister, what did you do in practical terms to advance the cause of young girls in science?

I had several projects, including the creation of a major center of excellence, the African Center for Research and Application, with a pan-African mandate. The idea was that there was a lot of research in the drawers and it had to be taken out. Then there was the Science and Technology Park project in which scientists, the private sector and communities were involved. It was supposed to be a framework for dialogue, to explore ideas and assess the needs of society and the means to remedy them through science. But due to lack of funding, these projects couldn't be implemented.

Do you think the outcome would have been different had the minister been a man?

No. On the other hand, if I had been "very political", there might have been some difference. Now, I define myself first and foremost as a scientist, with a much more rigorous vision. And maybe that's where there was a problem.

What do you say to all those who believe that this campaign around the need to have more girls in science is just another feminist struggle of modern times?

I tell them that Africa is made up mostly of women. And all this potential of creativity and talent can't simply be ignored; otherwise we would deprive ourselves of serious assets to get out of poverty. We need to train these girls and teach them skills. You train a woman, she will pass on the knowledge to her children and the whole society will benefit.

In doing so, do you not run the risk of upsetting established social organisation models?

At the beginning of May, in Nairobi, during the Science and Innovation Week, I delivered a speech on the need to build on our values, in order ​​to promote innovation. That's the only way we can achieve transformation, and that is what will make the difference. Africa has a sense of values, an exceptional human potential based on women, a key element of our societies. We can't just see inequalities, fold our arms and watch.

This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.