Balancing the Equation: Empower Women in STEM to Achieve Development Goals

by Amref Health Africa

Did you know that despite global advances in achieving equality for women and girls in science, just 28% of researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa are women? Did you know that even once a woman overcomes the numerous barriers to succeeding as a professional in the health sector, she is still likely to be paid less than a man doing the same job under the same conditions? In fact, the African Academy of Sciences estimates that 56% of women are not remunerated in line with their qualifications despite being hired on merit, a disparity that continues to discourage young African girls and women from pursuing careers in the sciences.

Hot on the heels of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Dr. Lydia Atambo, Research Fellow at Amref International University, shares her perspective on what it’s like to be an African woman in research, addressing the glaring gender gap in science in Africa, and creating pathways for a new generation of female researchers from the continent.

Read the full interview:

Tell us a little about yourself growing up. What did you study?

I grew up in Nairobi. I am the second born in a family of six children. I studied at Pangani Girls High School and thereafter went to the University of Nairobi to pursue medicine. The first six years of study were really tough.

What inspired you to get into research?

The functioning of the human body always fascinated me, which is why I studied medicine. As I practised I became interested in the factors that affect community health. My curiosity in that led me to research, where I immersed myself in studying how socio-demographic factors, politics, religion, law and culture influence the health of a population. The research seeks to explore the interconnections between all these factors – it’s a very interesting field.

As a woman in science research, what are some of the challenges you faced in your early career?

Research as a career has a protracted growth curve so it requires a lot of patience and persistence before you can gain traction and begin making an impact. Like other careers in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research is also male-dominated, meaning women have to work harder to prove themselves, grow and succeed.

Have you noticed any significant changes in terms of gender equality in research and research leadership in the past 10 years?

It’s encouraging to see more women getting into research now, but we still have a long way to go before we can achieve gender and pay equality. Women are more concentrated in entry and mid-level roles and remain underrepresented in senior leadership, and that’s something we need to address because of its consequences on how research is carried out and utilised to inform health policies and interventions.

In your opinion, which challenges stand out as the biggest barriers to African women excelling in research on the continent?

Underinvestment in women as a whole is one of the biggest challenges because it affects our approach to women’s health, social and economic development.

This may sound like a generic response but having communities that are sensitive to girls’ and women’s needs will greatly advance the development agenda, which is good for all of us in the long run. For example, ensuring that our girls have access to good quality sanitary towels and clean water will greatly improve school attendance among girls. A report by the Borgen Project that aims to reduce the impact of periods of poverty states that about one million girls miss school every month because they cannot afford sanitary products. The constant absenteeism affects the girls’ performance n school, which limits their chances of pursuing STEM courses.

When you have no women meaningfully participating in STEM, you cannot have access to such insights and therefore you lose out on the diverse perspectives offered by women, which in turn affects decision-making at the highest levels and therefore programme design and implementation.

What solutions do you propose to these challenges?

Africa needs to give more girls and young women equal opportunities to pursue careers in science, and once in the field, we need to empower them to succeed. That means addressing barriers such as access to good quality education at all levels; doing away with patriarchal leadership styles that perpetuate gender biases and stereotypes; implementing gender-friendly policy frameworks to create work environments that are sensitive to women’s needs; encouraging mentorship; giving the same research funding opportunities for women-led projects and ensuring equal pay for equal work, to name a few.

We need to stop conditioning girls to believe that the sciences are hard and therefore better for boys – it’s simply not true. Instead, we should expose girls to various STEM-related fields early to demystify them and position fields like research as accessible and rewarding.

We should identify mentorship opportunities to keep them on track to pursue training and careers and provide fellowship, scholarship and internship opportunities that increase their chances of growing into leadership positions.

Such interventions will create a positive shift towards gender equality in research and contribute towards rapid growth in women-driven innovation across the continent.

Do you think the adoption of the two-thirds gender principle by countries such as Kenya has had any impact? Is there room for growth here?

Slightly more than half (50.3%) of the Kenyan population is female, yet only about 21% of leadership positions in both the public and private sectors are occupied by women. This needs to change. I strongly believe empowering women to lead will greatly improve our communities and more broadly, our nation, and we need to do more to make this a reality.

The two-thirds gender rule has somewhat changed the leadership landscape in Kenya. The Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAWKenya) has shared reports showing that women are participating more in the democratic space and are rising to leadership positions in boards, at work, etc. But we need to do much, much more

There is an African proverb that states: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But when you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” This is not to say that we should ignore the needs of boys and men, but we need to accelerate investment in girls’ and women’s empowerment to enjoy the benefits of equality in leadership across all sectors, including health.

As African governments work towards achieving development targets as envisioned by the African Union’s Agenda 2063, is there a role that academia, the private sector and development institutions can play to level the playing field for women in science?

Multi-sectoral collaboration between players in the public, private and development sectors is crucial to achieving the continent’s development targets. These institutions should jointly develop and implement frameworks that encourage the empowerment and participation of women in leadership through education, training, coaching and mentorship. All of this of course needs to be backed by financial investment in women-led and women-focused research because we cannot achieve our development goals if we ignore the needs of half the continent’s population.

As an African woman in science, what does progress look like to you? Where would you like to see young girls and women in science in the next decade?

Real progress to me means having a greater representation of women in all sectors – academia, politics, business and development – and even more than that, having equal representation at leadership level.

Women should remember that we have a unique and important role outside the home set-up, and we need to bring our skills and experiences to the workspaces we occupy. We can shine at home and at work!

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