HERS-EA Co-ordinator delivers a keynote address at Mekelle University

HERS-EA Co-ordinator delivers a keynote address at Mekelle University in Ethiopia on women in science, business and leadership   

Does the World need women in Science?  

In the area of infectious diseases and of poverty, for example, the absence of women scientists means a lack of diverse perspectives essential to addressing gender dimensions and the burden of infectious diseases, that disproportionately affect women directly or indirectly, because they are the primary carers of sick family members.  

By Naomi Lumutenga 

Ms Naomi Lumutenga is the co-founder and co-ordinator of HERS-EA and a Ph.D. student at Canterbury Christ Church University.   

Ms Naomi Lumutenga delivering the keynote address at Mekelle University  

According to UNICEF 2014 data available, women contribute only 28.8% of researchers in the World, with interesting Regional variations: at the top in Central Asia, with 47.2%, followed by Latin America & the Caribbean with 44.7%, North America &Western Europe with32.2; followed by Sub-Saharan Africa, with 30.4% and at the bottom, with 19.0% are South and West Asia. Even where data appear respectable, they mask major gender disparities between women and men in places of work and in their levels of responsibility. Women scientists primarily work in academic and government institutions, while their male counterparts are engaged more in the private sector, with better pay and opportunities. In addition, women scientists are often concentrated in the lower echelons of responsibility and decision-making with limited leadership opportunities. In academia, for example, women scientists are often lecturers and assistant researchers and very few are professors, while in research institutions, women are rarely research directors or principal investigators in major studies. As research assistants, women sometimes endure blatant sexism as illustrated in 2015, when Nobel Laureate Professor Tim Hunt resigned from University College London after he described women scientists as being a distraction in the lab. 

Women’s underrepresentation in science has consequences for development and research, per se. In the area of infectious diseases and of poverty, for example, the absence of women scientists means a lack of diverse perspectives essential to addressing gender dimensions and the burden of infectious diseases, that disproportionately affect women directly or indirectly, because they are the primary carers of sick family members. It is right, therefore, that promoting women’s participation in science in Africa is more visible. The African Union declared 2015 the ‘Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa Agenda 2063’, and adopted the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa – 2024.   

 Several regional organizations within sub-Saharan Africa have also taken steps to promote women’s participation in science: The East African Community, has adopted Gender & STI Frameworks that promote gender mainstreaming and gender equity in STI, entrepreneurship training and education. The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC)’s Gender Policy, which supports equal access for girls and boys to science and mathematics education, access for women and girls to tertiary education in non-traditional subject areas and The Economic Community for the West African States (ECOWAS) recognizes the contributions of women in STI in ECOWAS member countries through the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Regional Award for Women Scientists. 

Whilst we applaud such recognition, at Continental, Regional and National levels, it is important to offer our own reflections that justify the need for fair representation of women, in the world of Science, Technology and Innovation.  

Anecdotally women innovators tend to be less wealth driven. Women scientists and innovators tend to focus more on qualitative community-wide issues. One Forbes Africa Magazine journalist published a list of 5 African female scientists she believed everyone should know about: (I commend them to you in line with my point of women being more in tune with family and community issues than wealth creation – obviously they are very rich, that’s how they featured in Forbes but, their primary motive for innovation was to address a community-wide issue) 

R-L, Ms Naomi Lumutenga seated with the management team during the conference at Mekelle University  

What can governments and institutions do, to harness women’s potential? 

  1. Act on known factors that prevent women from full participation, (including those that will come out of this conference) and ensure the involvement of women at all planning and implementation levels – only by having women around the table will corrective strategies work. Overlooking women when making decisions leads to ridiculous situations such as those where nations prioritise free condoms over free sanitary pads!  It is a choice for men to have sex, whenever and wherever but, it is not a choice for women to go through menstruation; lack of menstruation facilities is a known factor for higher school dropout rates for girls compared to boys. 
  2. Implement and evaluate progress on commitments they have signed up to, for example, UN SDG 3 (Health & Wellbeing) and 5(Gender Equality). Maternal Health will continue to be problematic where there are not enough female doctors, especially in communities where religious and cultural traditions prevent contact between men and ‘strange’ women or, where women would rather not be examined by a man! If women are not present when decisions are made about medical staff, men on their own will not pick up such critical issues! 
  3. Governments, Institutions and NGOs need to fund new research because some of the factors are dynamic; for example, what is the impact of increased access to the mobile phone on physical and emotional wellbeing? What new opportunities and challenges does that phenomenon bring?  

What can women do for themselves? 

Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by the problems before us, that we revert to our comfort zone of helplessness or, simply, internalise misogyny and plod along, doing things the same way that we know. Well, we shouldn’t and must not! Here are some suggestions: 

1. Coordinated fightback, using data:  

Choose an area – if it is gender underrepresentation in R&D, work together with different organisations and collect data on how many women are engaged in HEIs, Government

Ministries and NGOs and publish it, then get into the qualitative debates of ‘how’ and ‘why’ and ‘so what’ – good quality data is good ammunition! 

Example – In 2015 Dr Yael Niv, a neuroscience professor at Princeton University, USA, received an invitation to a conference on Deep Brain Stimulation, a hot subject for treatment of depression. She noticed that there were 23 speakers, all men. Fed up of largely unsuccessful protests to have more female speakers at conferences, Dr Niv linked up with 20 other females and they decided to collect irrefutable data on speakers at conferences, by gender and display it on a live website they had set up; this was a very specific and achievable task. After 13 conferences their data revealed that there had been 11 females, compared to 213 male panellists. Dr Niv and her colleagues did not believe that conference organisers were deliberately discriminative; they saw it more as ‘implicit bias’; the organisers might not have been aware of it and participants simply took what they were given. 

2.  Succession plan at your workplace 

You have all started good work wherever you are; you are here today because you have a burden to correct the underrepresentation of women in certain fields – have you identified your successors and are you nurturing and mentoring them? Are you exposing them to the right training and skills and are they growing in confidence to take on tasks and responsibilities in your absence? 

3. Identify a local manageable issue you can tackle 

Studies are available showing girls’ bad experiences in High schools and HEIs – A good study published in 2005 by Lemessa Margo, of Jimma university, about Gender Disparity in HE in Ethiopia identified Sexual Harassment as one of the leading factors for low participation of girls in Tertiary Education – what has happened since then? You could build on that, by conducting a follow up study of the status in your institution? What has changed, since the previous study? What strategies seem to work? Can you get together with other institutions and collect country-wide irrefutable data, about sexual harassment as a factor, and propose affordable sustainable solutions? 

4.  Be a role model 

Everyone in this room is a role model and should recognise and utilise the opportunity. How can your education benefit future generation women so that they do not have to face the same problems as you and I faced? Reflect on your personal journey – how did you get here? What obstacles did you overcome, to get where you are? What lessons have you learnt, which will help you to develop yourself? 

I end with a familiar African proverb: 

If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a society.  

 Can you, hand on your heart, claim that to be true? To what extent is your society benefiting from your education? If this was a relay race, what kind of baton are you going to hand over to those girls in your village, that will make them run faster than you or ensure that they reach the finishing line? 

Thank you very much. 

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