Embracing innovation and mindset change in the fight for equality

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is important to reflect on how far we have to come in the fight for gender equality and equity. The recent increase in female lawmakers across the world is nothing new in Africa.

Parliaments, led by the Rwandan one, are increasingly female.

This, in principle, means that more legislation that improves the lives of the community in general, and women in particular, can be put forth.

We are also seeing more women in boardrooms and leadership across the board.

The most progress has been made where quotas are actively applied. Recently, Iceland became the first country to make it illegal to pay a man more than a woman.

These initiatives – that I will call ‘push’ initiatives – seem to be the initiatives that are having the largest visible impact but we are still seeing women leave fields that continue to be male dominated, particularly in the fields of science and technology.

Before I attempt to answer why this is the case, let’s talk about why it is bad for everyone that women are leaving these fields. When products, programmes, systems are designed, they are heavily influenced by those doing the thinking and developing.

That is why, for example, the question of bias in building of Artificial Intelligence, is an ongoing one around the world. We build technology based on our experiences.

As women continue to leave these fields, we will continue to see products and systems built for men.

In a very interesting article, Caroline Criado-Perez, elaborates the challenges women face in technical fields, from hand tools that are too big (posing a safety risk), to bullet proof vests that are not adjusted for female torsos, causing both physical harm and endangering the lives of security personnel.

The example that has stuck out to me most is car airbags and seatbelts. Most safety tests on cars are done with male crash dummies. The average female body is different in both size and composition, especially while pregnant. Why is this a big deal? While men have higher crash statistics, women have higher fatality during crashes. Can you guess why? The airbag safety tests are calibrated for a male body.

There are many example across all fields. Let me focus on the ones in science and innovation.

A recent study shows that even when you control for experience and performance, female founders will get less funding from investors because they are asked different questions (this gap disappears when women fund women).

In fact, they even get personal comments (she should smile more for example).

In academia, according to a US study looking at over 50,000 US National Institute of Health grants from 2006-2017, women received on average $40,000 USD less than men in grants, even when controlled for all other factors.

In the workplace, a common one I have experienced myself, is that female leaders, no matter how high up, are expected to organize administrative tasks. You will find that even if you control for other factors within teams, women are taking on more administrative and operation tasks.

Men are given more strategic tasks. When it is time to promote, both men and women will promote employees who have worked on strategic tasks. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are two ways to take in this information. The first is to say that we are making good progress and time will take care of the rest. But this isn’t a smart approach.

We can already see that, in some cases, we are moving backwards. What we do know is that having more women improves long term outcomes, and has a positive impact on business outcomes, short and long term.

The better solution is look across the continent and the world for best practices that can be tailored. For me, this is a combination of quotas and long term programs to change culture.

Want to hire and retain the best women software engineers? Get rid of the tech bro culture and co-create and/or support programs to retain women in these fields. Want to have more women in boardroom? Stop saying we can’t find them, and create a transparent, committed program to groom them from within.

In scientific fields, the first thing that needs to happen is an honest assessment in our institutions of higher learning to figure out where they are dropping out and why.

This requires filling the gender data gap that exists at all levels. What is for sure, we need targeted programs, and funding in this regard. At the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), we have women only chairs and our fellowships include support for dependents and help so that female researchers can travel and present papers.

At the Next Einstein Forum, we institute active quotas for our prestigious Fellowship.

As science becomes multidisciplinary, we can and should be thinking about how to improve the situation. I know some men grumble under their breathe that at this rate, nothing will be left for the men.

Let me assure you that what women want is equality not oppression. In fact, the numbers don’t support this fear at all.

In conclusion, I want to point that gender equality is a long term fight that women and men should take on together. This #metoo environment can paralyze male allies.

It should not. All of us have stories of men who have mentored, encouraged, defended our interests, even at the expense of their own careers. I think it helps to keep the overall goal in mind: gender balance is good for us all. It is good for business. It is good for knowledge. It is good for society.

Nathalie Munyampenda is that Managing Director of the Next Einstein Forum, an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) that seeks to propel Africa onto the global scientific stage and make science relevant and cool for all ages. AIMS believes that the next Einstein will come from Africa.

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