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Women in STEM in Africa

Women in STEM in Africa: a shift in the social paradigm

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries have been at the forefront of innovation and growth for the past two decades, especially during and in the aftermath of, the COVID pandemic. The technological revolution that has taken place in the past three years has created a need for rapid global recovery strategies. However, for this revolution to be successful in the long run against not only possible future crises but also the socioeconomic evolution of society, inclusive development of these industries is critical. Research shows that diversity in genders, races, and backgrounds within teams can lead to better performance. With the International Day of Women and Girls in Science fast approaching, GVG wishes to honor women in STEM in Africa. This day is a reminder that science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The education gap

In a technology-driven world, the importance of fostering ICT knowledge on a global scale will determine how the future pans out for the next generations. Currently, there are important gender imbalances when it comes to the role women play in the STEM landscape. These differences are even more significant in the African continent, both in access and completion of tertiary education (with less than 30% of women in Sub-Saharan African countries graduating in STEM fields), as well as in leadership positions. Indeed, girls and women in Africa face even more challenges when it comes to having a presence in the STEM industries. In fact, only 12 % of women currently operate in the ICT sector in Africa, according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Furthermore, the World Economic Forum recently stated that in the Technology field globally, women comprise about 24% of leadership roles and less than 30% of science researchers worldwide are women.

There are multiple reasons for this gender disparity, some of those being systemic gender biases and cultural and historical stereotypes. In last year’s Foresight Africa podcast, University Professors Ayotola Aremu and Adefunke Ekine (authors of Making the Future of African STEM female) delved into their experiences, pointing out some of the root causes that have discouraged girls from following science and technology education paths. Ekine said that these systemic biases start within the homes and schools. In that sense, she continued to explain that these biases can be seen significantly in many African households in the way boys and girls are raised and how a distinction of their capabilities is made, pointing out that boys are steered towards mechanical/engineering fields, while girls are told to focus on domestic activities. Ekine added that from a very young age, girls themselves do not believe in their own ability to excel within these fields. The roles of teachers and mentors are extremely important when it comes to paving the way for girls to find their voice and feel empowered enough to continue pursuing scientific and technological careers.

In terms of statistics, this gap is not only present in education but also in digital access. In Africa specifically, while women represent 51% of the population, only 20% have internet access. In itself, this limits the possibilities of acquiring further knowledge and tools in their professional journey towards a STEM-related field.

Time for change – Shifting the paradigm

However challenging having a presence in STEM may have been for African women, a shift in the current paradigm is also taking place. Raising awareness on these gender disparities is the first step in enabling substantial progress. In this regard, many decision-makers are focusing on initiatives that aim to increase the number of women in STEM in Africa, by empowering women to leverage their skills and potential. An example of this is the Connected African Girls initiative, launched in 2020 and established by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). Through this initiative, approximately 25,000 girls were trained in Artificial Intelligence, coding, gaming, and other uses of digital technology; or the Tech Africa Women, a program dedicated to building a strong female-led tech startup pipeline and community in Africa. These are just two examples of an expanding list of women-led businesses and projects in the continent.

In 2021, Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly, the World Bank Country Director for several African countries, stressed the “need to scale up interventions that have proven to be game changers”. She added that these interventions should include improving the access and quality of integrated STEM in elementary education to ensure these competences are acquired, as well as providing mentorship and training opportunities in collaboration with these industries and promoting flexible workplace policies.

An important aspect for girls to gain opportunities and feel they can pursue further education and a career in tech, is having female role models, that can share their successful experiences and endeavours. Having someone they can look up to can spark an interest and break down these current barriers. When children are educated in a narrative that evolves around equality, that promotes girls having access to the same educational and training tools as their male counterparts. As a result, they will be assured that they can change the playing field. They will indeed believe that they can be a part of the revolution that is already happening and that they have every necessary skill set in their power to do so.

As a technology company, GVG is committed to promoting the presence of women in ICT-related professions. We thus employ women in all departments and at different levels of responsibility, particularly in the technical and engineering department. In a previous post, we even had the pleasure of discussing not only the challenges women encounter in the ICT sector but also their many outstanding achievements, with Gladys Barbirye, one of our engineers.

Want to read more about Gladys and the presence of women in the ICT sector? Click here.