Where are the women in science?

Data from the United Nations shows that less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women.

Interventions against global challenges call for as much stakeholder input and involvement. However, has this been the case in the field of science?

Data from the United Nations website shows that less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women.

According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) data, only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education, yet globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (three per cent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (five per cent) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (eight per cent).

The scale and magnitude of challenges calls for as much involvement by everybody, including women.

Girls should be encouraged to embrace science subjects. 

For instable, global warming has proved to be a daunting challenge. The vulnerability of women to natural disasters could be heightened by socio-economic issues such as poverty, inequality and lack of access to natural resources, most of which are direct effects of climate change.

Experts, who partake in addressing this issue, require comprehensive and integrative expertise in sciences, yet women who should be at the forefront in addressing this issue are less represented in this field partly because of lack of skills, among other factors.

Why is the number of women in science low?

February 11 was International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Held under the theme ‘Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth’, the day sought to address challenges that are still preventing women from joining the science field.

During a forum that was organised by African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) on Monday in celebration of this day, participants shared insightful opinions on this issue.

Rose Baguma, the representative of the Minister of Education at the forum, noted that of course African girls and women are facing challenges based on gender stereotypes— from families to schools, most of them still cannot access productive assets like financial capital and networks to capitalise on their knowledge.

Dr Nana Ama Brown Klutse, a senior research analyst, says lack of enough women in science is not due to lack of intelligence, but it’s the biological or natural hindrances that play a great part in limiting women joining this field.

Factors such as monthly periods may seem petty but they take a huge toll in women’s lives, she says.

At times intimidation from society plays a part as well. Klutse says the few women who choose to join this field face intimidation right from the classroom to the working place.

These, and other factors, still pose a great challenge but Klutse warns women to understand and accept that this is all part of the process.

“I encourage women to accept what they need to go through. If they decide to be focused, they can make it and pull through. For me to walk through my career as a woman, going through child birth, marriage and all that, I had to have this ‘I don’t care attitude’, this is the only way to make it in such male dominated fields,” she says.

Dr Jessica Nosizwe Paula Rose Thorn, a postdoctoral researcher, highlights that we live in a very rapidly changing world and she appreciates how privileged women are in this day and age.

However, Thorn said that as she progressed through her career, she became more aware of the very rigid structures that society still operates in.

“We live in a very hierarchical society, especially in many parts of Africa. Some men are intimidated by women in positions of leadership and it challenges the fundamentals of how society works,” she says.

Thorn also says that at times, age and race come into play when it comes to women being few in the science field—not forgetting the challenges that come with sexual harassment.

“These issues need to be talked about in communities, we also need to work in teams and have structures in our organisations that allow us to engage in these issues,” she adds.

Nathalie Munyampenda, the managing director of Next Einstein Forum, points out that the issue is not necessarily that women are not entering the science field, rather, the issue is that they are not remaining in the field. 

“We are not putting science as a vital career for girls; this is one of the major issues. We see a drop at every level; women at times don’t see a long term career out of it,” she says.

What needs to be done?

We should not just say we need to have women for the sake of just having them. We need to know that having more women scientists has a direct impact on policy; we should address the gaps, the ‘whys’ of women falling out and what we can do to address this at each level, Munyampenda says.

“We are sort of circling around the issues affecting women. We talk about menstruation, sexual harassment in passing but these are very big issues for women, we need fellowships that address these gaps and I think that the more we have women on board the better,” she adds.

Blaise Tchapnda, the academic director at AIMS, says they recognise there is a gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and are taking a proactive approach to address this.

In addition to ensuring that more students at each centre are female, AIMS is working to strive for a systemic change. It is aiming at ensuring that women are leaders in creating innovative solutions that address climate change, Tchapnda points out.

“We are also introducing a fellowship programme and mobility for girls and women for climate change in science to support outstanding female scientists over the next five years.”

Coletha U. Ruhamya, the director general of REMA, says with a number of partnerships they are having with different stakeholders, they want to work towards achieving the policies that are formulated basing on the scientific research.

She believes that with the right policies in place, the number of women in the science field will definitely increase in the near future.

“For Rwanda, we are very blessed that we have leadership that supports women, we all know and have no excuse. Yes we still have few women in science but I am sure where we are heading is promising.”

Baguma says there is need to put emphasis on the emerging technologies that will help society and women accelerate their development in STEM and in other ways.

This, she says, can be done by improving their skills, providing them access to resources and connecting them to each other to come together and share their experiences.

“We thank AIMS for valuing mathematics, science, research and innovation, especially in climate change. Science and gender equality are both vital values so we are not forgetting the fact that we still have issues, especially in education, to raise awareness and at least make our young generation see the importance and impact of studying sciences,” she says.

The internet itself and other advances in information, communication and technology should enable women all over the world to progress faster than ever before; this will help them be well positioned to generate wealth from their innovations. The Ministry of Education really values this and puts science as one of its priorities in the national strategy for transformation that translates to our goals in the education sector, Baguma notes.

“It is our duty today to show young girls that they can do it, let us all be involved in addressing issues that are hampering the role of women and girls in science and developing local solutions,” she adds.

What can be done to have more women in science?

Yvette Ishimwe, Founder of Iriba Clean Water Delivery Ltd

Let us create a female way of doing things. Let us not compete or try to be like men, instead, do things our way the best way we can. Whether it is being a female physicist or engineer, let us do it the best way we can. Yes, we all can’t be engineers or doctors, we can pursue different careers, but at the end of the day, we complement each other. However, those who are already in sciences should do their best and inspire others.

Yeetah Kamikazi, In-charge of Digital Exports and Partnership in ICT Chamber

They should introduce career guidance programmes in schools where successful women in science share their stories with young ladies; as a result, this will build their confidence and sharpen their future career. 

Justus Mutabazi, Student

Most of the time, many women have an in-built fear for sciences, this is what needs to be handled. The other thing that can be done is to encourage women to join sciences; the Government should avail a number of platforms that promote and encourage women to reach advanced levels in sciences. But most importantly, people should be taught beforehand the benefits of having a number of women join this field. 

Henry Malumba, Architect

Society stands to gain a lot by exposing young girls to this field. There is need to undo the negative perceptions girls have around the science field. They need to be encouraged to embrace subjects like math and science at an early age.