Women in Science in Africa:Perspective, Observations, Challenges, Opportunities and Recommendations.
Despite various initiatives, the number of women in science (WiS) in Africa remains low, and globally the gender gap in science persists, particularly in math-intensive fields such as engineering. As of March 2019, data from Engineering Registration Board revealed that there are only 8% female registered engineers, 2% female registered professional engineers, and 0.24% female consulting engineers in the East African country of Tanzania. Consulting various women in science in Tanzania, the author of this article compiled the following perspectives, observations, challenges, opportunities and recommendations, for WiS.
The perception of women in Africa (and probably all over the world) has focused on their role as mothers and wives. Although there is no proven study that women and men have different capabilities in terms of capturing and understanding science and math subjects, cultural beliefs and gender-differentiated perception have greatly influenced career choices. For meaningful change to occur, girls should be raised in such a manner that they are allowed to think and act equally without perceived limitations or restrictions placed upon them by cultural beliefs. Furthermore, women who have been given the chance to pursue science fields have excelled, making remarkable discoveries and contributions. To name a few, Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai from Kenya who established a green belt movement, and Engineer Margaret Munyagi, who became the director general for Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority.
In Africa particularly, discoveries are very important as many women and children suffer disproportionately from preventable deaths such as due to lack of access to clean and safe water. Taking note that it takes a woman to understand the need of the other woman and to ignite the urge to improve things. Women can and do manage admirably despite their work loads and challenges faced due to gender roles and African culture roles and expectations; at the same time, these challenges also prevent many women from achieving higher levels.
Challenges faced by WiS include a lack of acceptance and recognition of their capabilities as equal to men, especially in field related work; a lack of confidence in their own capabilities which could be partly attributed to their upbringing and/or the education system scaring them away from math and science; cultural forces and family commitments forcing them to make other career choices; and facing stereotypes regarding women and education, higher earning jobs, and managing positions. Major gender disparities are observed between women and men research scientists, with more women scientists working in academic and government institutions while male scientists dominate in private sectors, which, although less flexible, offer better pay. Moreover, with few women occupying decision-making positions in academic and research institutions, their scientific role in prioritizing research agendas is severely circumscribed. As well, there is a shortage of ‘older’ WiS to act as mentors and role models to aspiring WiS.
Nevertheless, the shortage of WiS offers a good opportunity for WiS to develop visions that are addressing current issues. The presence of national and international efforts to end gender imbalance offers great opportunities for the growth of WiS. Recent initiatives implemented to address this disparity include increased science scholarships and grants, innovation awards, job positions, and new policies, with provisions for the inclusion, involvement, and promotion of women.
Moving forward, women and girls need more role models, empowerment, and outreach programs to inspire, encourage, and motivate them to join, learn, and practice science. Parents should help their children to appreciate various career choices without segregation. Female abroad scholarships should accommodate family for comfortability. More accommodation and consideration for females must be made in private sectors. Education delivery needs reform to focus on hands-on learning to equip students with extra skills like critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. Existing women’s platforms for sharing information, strategies, and opportunities towards professional, social and career growth must be promoted and made widely accessible. Available scientific platforms include, Medical Women Association Tanzania, Institution of Engineers Women Chapter – Tanzania, Tanzania Women Architects for Humanity, Association of Professional Women Engineers in Nigeria, Rwanda Women in Science and Engineering, Tanzania Women in Pharmacy Profession. More funds and sponsorships by African governments to support science scholars from secondary level must be put in place. Lastly, the presence of registration and certification bodies in science may add value to given fields.
– Contributed by: Dr. Tulinave Burton Mwamila; Head of Continuing Education, Research, Consultancy and Publications Department; Water Institute – Ministry of Water, Tanzania.