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Columnists

Let’s make room for more girls and women in science

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More needs to be done to ensure that Kenyan girls and women are fully represented in the sciences. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

As a woman and a trained materials scientist myself, I have witnessed firsthand the effects of the gender gap in the sciences, beginning a decade ago when I was still a university student at Dartmouth College in the US.

There, pursuing an undergraduate degree in engineering after falling in love with physics during my years at Kenya High School, I found that there were few, if any, women in most of my engineering classes.

This disparity would only worsen as I moved up the academic ladder. By the time I arrived at my PhD studies in physics, the gender gap was even more glaring. In addition to being one of only several female PhD students in my department, I was also the only black student.

Later, as a post-doctoral fellow working in Washington D.C. on technology and policy dimensions of clean energy in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the under-representation of women like myself nagged at me.

While I had found professional success in the US, more often than not, I would be invited to conferences or to participate in high-level policy discussions where I was not only the only woman, but also the only African woman in the room.

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That African women’s voices were crucially missing when it came to charting solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing the 21st Century, felt like a missed opportunity.

It is widely recognised that trying to find developmental solutions without the involvement of the people most impacted by the issues is a fragmented and flawed approach.

Further, the case has already been made for the disproportionate impacts that development challenges—such as access to health care and education, or climate change and energy poverty—have on the African continent and on women themselves.

The complex challenges Africa faces require tools and perspectives from many disciplines and sectors, as well as the full participation of everyone, including women who make up half of our population.

A UNESCO 2018 report on Women in Science found that on average, women make up only 30 percent of Africa’s researchers, and in Kenya that figure is much lower, with women making up only 25 percent of researchers. The World Economic Forum in 2017, found that women make up only 17 percent of students pursuing degrees in science and technology in Kenya.

Another study on the ‘State of University Education in Kenya,’ conducted by the Commission for University Education found that that by the time women progress to their PhD studies, the ratio of men to women is two to one, and even worse in the science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) fields.

Clearly, more needs to be done to ensure that Kenyan girls and women are fully represented in the sciences.

To transform how the academic sector (and the whole of society) views women, and their role within it, we have to consistently push an agenda that says women and their contributions are valuable – we need to keep the volume turned up.

It is also important that women working in spaces where they are underrepresented, find ways to mentor other women, providing much needed validation and guidance in maneuvering areas where women are still breaking barriers.

We also need to find ways to work together with men in positions of leadership who can help push the agenda for women’s inclusion and close the gender gap in science.

Initiatives such as Safaricom’s Women in Leadership programme and KenGen’s Pink Energy Campaign are good examples of how industry can drive discourse on the importance of women’s contributions to the STEM sector in Kenya. I believe that with the increased participation of African women in academia and the sciences, we can help ensure that African women are poised to shape and also reap the benefits of national and global development agendas.

Rose Mutiso is the CEO, Mawazo Institute.

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