The love for chemistry, fascination with entomology and the passion for ecology are just as likely to excite a girl’s mind as a boy’s.
But after undergraduate studies, most women scientists slowly fall out from research and development, Master’s and PhD classes.
According to Unesco Institute for Statistics, only three in 10 scientists in sub-Saharan Africa are women. In research, men hold 89 per cent of senior positions, and only three per cent of Nobel scientific prizes have been awarded to women.
The slow and irregular advancement of women scientists due to gender expectations and the intersection of academic and biological timelines have locked out many from coming up with timely innovations to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Women scientists who want to start families grapple with waiting for a perfect moment but in reality the biological clock never waits for career success.
“I am a mother of two and when you get a baby, for instance, your research is put on hold for at least six months. Unfortunately, time is critical for research work. So sometimes, I am forced to work late at night. Nonetheless, I am grateful when I overcome these challenges,” she says.
Elizabeth, who is studying for her PhD in computer science, is among the few Kenyan women hoping to navigate gender hurdles and leave a mark in the science and technology sphere. She is using data to predict and hopefully solve Nairobi’s traffic problems, estimated to cost the country Sh2.1 billion a year in lost productivity.
She is developing a hybrid traffic solution that combines two models; one that predicts short-term traffic, and another that will utilise historical traffic patterns to predict probabilities of future snarl-ups.
Another challenge that holds back women researchers is funds. But there are a few organisations that are now funding women scientists. Elizabeth, for instance, got funding from Mawazo Institute, a non-profit that gives research money to women under 40.
“The research grant cleared my school fees, paid for all travel and printing costs. They also supported me to present a poster in South Africa as well as do a statistical training in Mombasa,” she says.
For Fiona Mumoki, an entomologist who studies insects, specifically bees, what worries her most is “the leaking pipeline.”
“A large numbers of young girls complete high school with an interest in studying sciences in university. They proceed to universities and then few make it to the Master’s degree level and even fewer proceed to take up doctoral studies,” she says. “We have to address what is keeping highly qualified women who want to develop careers in scientific research from achieving their goals in the same manner that their male counterparts would. This is not about giving women special privileges, but it is about removing gender barriers.”
Fiona is in the homestretch of her PhD at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. She is studying the link between bee colonies and food security. Her focus is on a unique African honeybee found in South Africa. The worker bees switch to false queens and invade bee colonies. This leads to the collapse of bee colonies and a subsequent reduction in honey. This has affected commercial honey production in South Africa.
Last year, Fiona was among 14 African women honoured for her impact in science by L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science programme. Each woman received a €5,000 (Sh570,000) research grant.
Gladys Mosomtai, another Kenyan who was awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowship, is studying coffee pests and diseases to help smallholder farmers.
At 30, she is a PhD student at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), Kenya and University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
She says while there are many opportunities in research, women and men are not aware that they can build a career in the field.
For Caroline Kabaria, a post-doctoral research scientist at the African Population and Health Research Centre, she believes that gender should never be a limitation.
Her research looks at how illness varies within informal settlements and slums in urban areas with GIS and remote sensing.
Mentorship, Caroline and Fiona add, is critical as the challenges women face in their respective workplace are similar. “When you tell your story and get the ‘Oh, you too?’, it forms an extremely powerful icebreaker,” Fiona says.
There is also the headache of unequal pay. However, the gender pay gap is not limited to science or Kenya, it persists across the globe and many professions and according to the World Economic Forum, and the gap may close by 2186.
Fiona believes the pay debate can be addressed if companies have salary transparency policies.
“We really need to put in place and enforce policies that encourage equal compensation. It should be illegal to pay one worker less than another worker, for equivalent work done,” she says.