From America to Africa, women face numerous cultural and professional obstacles in the fields of science and technology. Over the past 30 years, several international organizations, led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), have focused efforts on the inequalities and disparities in access for women to education, training, and jobs in these fields. They have a special focus on promoting women in science in Africa.
The governments of several African countries have promised to develop long-term strategies for socioeconomic transformation. They understand that any strategy must include eradicating poverty and creating economies that are sustainable. They plan to do this by focusing on science, technology and innovation.
Science and technology remain male-dominated fields. The gender gap in the science is a worldwide phenomenon that can be seen in developed and developing nations. Studies have shown that girls are discouraged early on from pursuing science or technology fields. For the few that continue on, women find few mentors at university and continue experiencing a lot of gender bias.
Entering the workforce has its own challenges as well. In 2013, Yale researchers published a study that there was inherent bias among scientists – both male and female – that favored young men over women. When presented with identical summaries of candidates, they were more likely to give the job to a man. If they did consider a woman, they would offer her less money – up to $4,000 less than they would a male applicant.
From Ghana to Zimbabwe, Africa’s diverse cultures and traditions share similar obstacles for women in science and technology. Patriarchal traditions place many barriers to education and career advancement. The number of female science graduates are growing but a large number remain unemployed. For the few that do find employment, they are often undervalued and their careers are derailed at much higher rates than their male counterparts.
Women in science and technology are seen as a key component to the success of Africa’s economic initiatives in the coming decades. In response, more direct action is being taken to not only increase access for women, but to create support networks to encourage women to remain and further their careers. UNESCO sponsors academic chairs in Kenya and Sudan. Their Nairobi office has led the way to developing strategic plans that address training issues as well as developing female mentoring networks.
Several other organizations within Africa are also leading the way. In 2008, African Women’s Forum on Science and Technology (AWFST) was formed. It created a mentoring program which pairs female scientists with younger, less experienced women to work on new innovations. Women in Entrepreneurship, Infrastructure and Sustainable Energy Development (WEISED) focuses on infrastructure and sustainable energy opportunities for women in those fields.
UNESCO also understands the importance of encouraging the pursuit of science, as well as spotlighting the achievements of African women scientists. In 2010, they launched the L’Oréal-UNESCO Regional Fellowships Program for Women in Science in Sub-Saharan Africa. Each fellow receives $20,000 towards her PhD study at a recognized tertiary education institution within Sub-Saharan Africa. In 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards honored women all over the world – one woman from each continent – for their achievements in science.
The 2014 laureate for Africa and the Arab States is a perfect example on the importance of encouraging young girls and women in science.
Dr. Segenet Kelemu is currently the Director General, International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya. It was her working in the fields in her native Ethiopia as a child that made her want to pursue agricultural science and improve conditions for small farmers and especially women in developing countries. She was the first woman to attend what was then Ethiopia’s only university.
She is being honored for her research on how microorganisms living in symbiosis with forage grasses can improve their capacity to resist disease and adapt to environmental and climate change. Her work is providing new solutions for ecologically responsible food crop production, especially by local, small-scale farmers. Her discoveries will have a major impact by alleviating livestock feed shortages, improving soil fertility, milk and beef production, and, as a result, improve livelihoods.
As Dr. Kelemu has shown, women in science is crucial to the future of Africa — and the world.