Skip navigation

Women in STEM: Promoting women’s participation in science in Africa

Innovation, science, and technology play a crucial role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Over the past two decades, the global community has made tremendous efforts in engaging women and girls in science. The United Nations General Assembly declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, with the aim of both promoting full and equal access to, and participation in, science for women and girls, and further achieving gender equality and their empowerment.

Women in STEM: Promoting women’s participation in science in Africa / Published on 11 February 2021
Air quality workshop

SEI Africa researcher Dr. Andrianah Mbandi at the Nairobi County air quality draft bill sensitization workshop. Photo: Lawrence Nzuve/SEI

Year of women empowerment

Additionally, the African Union declared 2015 as the Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa’s Agenda 2063, and adopted the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa – 2024 to boost the participation of women as key contributors to Africa’s growth and development in science, technology and innovation.

This year, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we not only celebrate the contribution of women in science working on the COVID-19 vaccine and the overall COVID-19 emergency response, but also their role in providing evidence-based research that informs policymaking on sustainable food systems, air quality control, climate change and the environment – some of the core work that SEI is doing.

SEI is at the forefront in promoting gender integration through its initiative on Gender Equality, Social Equity and Poverty (GESEP). GESEP seeks to understand the inter-connections between gender, equity, poverty, and sustainability through the lens of power, in order to inform and advance transformative and sustainable development.

Thus, the initiative supports the integration of gender equality, social equity, and poverty dimensions into SEI’s work, a process that will strengthen the organization’s capacity for research that considers these issues. SEI Africa is also keen to enhance the capacity of female researchers through funded trainings, the most recent example of these being an eight week course on “Women Leading In Times of Crisis”, conducted by the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) programme.

Rocio Chavez

SEI Africa Deputy Director Dr. Rocio A Diaz-Chavez addresses a workshop on National Determined Contributions. Photo: SEI

Women underrepresented

Still, despite representing half of the world’s population, women and girls remain deeply underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. According to recent data from UNESCO, less than 30% of researchers employed in research and development globally are women. Studies have also found that women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers. Moreover, women and girls’ enrolment in university STEM courses is much lower than their male counterparts’. “As a result of these factors, many girls are discouraged from participating in sciences

In Africa, the participation of women and girls in STEM remains at the global average. Persistent gender disparity continues to exclude women and girls in science from achieving their potential and effectively contributing to development challenges.

For example, women make up 40% of the labour contribution in agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. The dearth of women scientists means there is a lack of the diverse perspectives essential to addressing issues of gender and the fact that the burdens of climate disasters often disproportionately affect women. Furthermore, with few women occupying decision-making positions in academic and research institutions, their role in prioritizing research agendas is severely constrained.

Dr Rocio A Diaz-Chavez, Deputy Director, and Carol Mungo, Research Fellow at SEI Africa share their thoughts on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2021.

Strategic contributors

For women and girls to be strategic contributors to development in Africa, it is fundamentally important to identify the qualitative factors that prevent them from pursuing careers in STEM.

A report by the African Academy of Sciences evidences a crucial need for more effective strategies and policies for gender mainstreaming in STEM at educational, institutional and societal levels.

In order to ensure the full-fledged participation of women and girls in STEM, additional support needs to be channelled towards the training and mentorship necessary to pursue leadership positions in science careers. Additionally, providing a work environment that supports work-life balance for STEM staff is important. This goes hand in hand with formulating and implementing gender-friendly policy frameworks, such as the provision of childcare facilities at the workplace and career re-entry programmes which encourage women scientists to resume their careers after taking a break to start a family.

In conclusion, to actively nurture the next generation of leading female scientists, it is necessary to go beyond designing more gender-responsive policies and mainstreaming gender into science and research. Further efforts are needed to incorporate gender equity into education both by empowering female teachers who can, in turn, empower girls to take up STEM courses and by promoting role models and mentorship programmes that foster a sense of belonging among women in STEM.

Design and development by Soapbox.