A young Katherine solves a mathematical equation to her obviously impressed older classmates in a West Virginia school… This was part of the opening scene to the award winning biographical film- Hidden Figures. A film that could not have come at a better time. It sets to highlight the lives of female mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson; whose contribution to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the 60’s was greatly overlooked throughout history.
“On this International Day, I urge commitment to end bias, greater investments in science, technology, engineering and math education for all women and girls as well as opportunities for their careers and longer-term professional advancement so that all can benefit from their ground-breaking future contributions”. Words of the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres to mark 11th February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This is the second year it is being celebrated, a couple decades late.
There are not enough women in STEM. A 2015 UNESCO report indicated that female science researchers accounted for about 28% worldwide and only 30% in Sub-Saharan Africa. A situation that can partly be blamed on lack of support and encouragement in the younger school going years and arguably, segregation in the work place. On the other end are women who do not get to practice after their first science degrees due to lack of opportunities and inspiration.
A couple of organisations in the continent have been set up to change these statistics. These include African Women in Science and Engineering (AWSE) and African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) who organize mentoring forums and empower leading women scientists. Companies such as Andela also recently recruited an all-female training cohort; an initiative that should be emulated by more science and tech institutions.
This would hopefully lengthen the list of unsung heroes such as Ghada Bassioni of Eygpt, Tolullah Oni of Nigeria and Evelyn Gitau of Kenya. Women who have contributed to issues such as fresh water availability through green chemistry, changing health patterns due to urbanization and cellular immune responses respectively.
Just talking to pre-high school and high school students is not enough. They need to wear lab coats,gloves,safety goggles,crunch numbers and write code – be in the centre of science activities,events and new technology beyond the curriculum. Stir the curiosity in them. Have them meet or know about female scientists they can look up to. Promoting this inclusive environment will help to also direct policy making towards gender equality.
Image credit: sciencemag.org