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Can African women win the STEM career steeplechase?

In the global south a lot of women perform many tasks that fall in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Unfortunately, not a lot women on our continent (Africa) receive the science education that could develop the skills they would need to access jobs in these fields. Furthermore, for those who manage to access STEM education and establish careers in STEM fields, their progression and success is often stunted by a myriad of challenges.

Our continent is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to technology and innovation. To accelerate the continents development, we need to increase our footprint in STEM. Women scientists are key role players in achieving these goals. But for this to be achieved, the barriers that limit their successes must be broken.

The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa looked at some of the factors that promote or derail women’s careers in these fields in Africa. They spoke to women from different regions of the continent. Four key factors (individual, family, societal and environments) were highlighted as the main drivers for success or failure for women.

Role Models and Mentors

One of the core drivers for choosing a career in STEM for the scientists interviewed was the presence of women professionals in their lives. Visible representation and access to mentors is crucial if we hope to increase the number of women at all levels of STEM.

Strong support structures

In Africa we believe that it takes a village to raise a child. A strong support structure is just as important in ensuring that women succeed in their STEM careers. These sentiments were echoed by the study participants where more than 70% of the women were supported by their families during their journey who instilled a strong sense of self belief. Support structures also come in the form of a good education system that encourages children to excel in maths and science and funding structures that provide financial support. With the right puzzle pieces in place, there would be a better retention of women in STEM.

Patriarchal attitudes

The idea of a working woman was taboo in our not so distant past. Although laws have changed giving women equal rights in the workplace, patriarchal attitudes persist. The glass ceilings denying women access to decision making positions, toxic masculinity and socio-cultural values all affect the success rate of women in STEM.

Work environment Once women negotiate their way through school, university and finally secure a job in their chosen fields they continue to face challenges that their male counterparts do not encounter in the workplace. The women interviewed in the study highlighted the issue of having to constantly prove that they are as capable as their male counterparts. Issues of maternity leave and family responsibility were also highlighted. In many societies on the continent the burden of raising children primarily falls on women. Complex working schedules and long working hours make it harder to manage a family and establish a healthy work-family balance. Another issue highlighted was the pay disparities between sexes and qualifications. Women also felt that they had fewer career opportunities than men.

So how do we get through this career steeplechase?

  • By enforcing proper implementation of existing policies that address gender gaps in STEM.

  • Increasing deliberate interventions that constantly raise awareness about achievements of women in scientific advances and innovation.

  • Promoting efforts that increase the visibility of women in STEM

  • Involving women in decision making processes that change organizational cultures

  • Creating support systems for women re-entering careers post maternity leave

The AAS (2020). Mukhwana A.M., Abuya T., Matanda D., Omumbo J., Mabuka J. Factors which Contribute to or Inhibit Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics in Africa. Nairobi

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