One of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) for African development focuses on the critical role female scientists could play in STEM, an area wherein they are hugely under-represented.
According to a research paper by Drs Jane Muthumbi and Johannes Sommerfeld, in a special report presented to the World Health Organisation (WHO), this situation presented potential negative implications for addressing and eliminating infectious diseases.
UNESCO data shows that only 28% of global researchers, employed in STEM, are female. Across SSA, only 30% of scientists in STEM-fields are women, most often employed primarily in academic and government institutions as lecturers and assistant researchers. In the private sector, the divide is even bigger with male scientists in most leadership and decision-making positions. Despite the fact that certain countries in SSA had policies to ensure gender-related objectives, most had never been implemented.
In the Muthumbi-Sommerfeld study, it had been clearly highlighted that in most African countries, university departments and research institutes are often led by men, simultaneously occupying key leadership positions. Lack of female scientist recruitment programmes and the absence of mentoring and professional support resulted in female scientists leaving the STEM profession, further enlarging the gender gap.
Recognising these challenges, several United Nation (UN) agencies had undertaken activities to specifically bolster women in STEM, initiating programmes and frameworks actively promoting female participation and leadership in science.
Recognising female participation as key drivers of Africa’s growth and development in STEM, the African Union (AU) already in 2015 declared the ‘Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa’s Agenda 2063’ and adopted the STEM Strategy for the continent. Several regional organisations across SSA had also moved to promote women’s participation in science. The East African Community (EAC) had adopted Gender & STI Frameworks to promote gender mainstreaming and gender equity in STI, entrepreneurship training and education, as did the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC.) The Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), through the Kwame Nkrumah Regional Award for Women Scientists ensured recognition of women in STEM.
It is however not documents espousing plans to close the gender disparity in STEM, but action that is called for. Only through active participation of all sectors of society would Africa be able to overcome its own challenges, but also make a global impact.
TDR, the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, is a global programme of scientific collaboration that helps facilitate, support and influence efforts to combat diseases of poverty.