Gender equality critical in science training


An African adage that says educating a girl means watering a neighbour’s tree is threatening gender equality in science training and other facets of life in Africa.

This is so because girls face direct and indirect discrimination – mostly they are denied access to education in countries within and across Africa.

For instance, Zimbabwean Carol Moyo’s hopes of pursuing a BSc in Biotechnology degree were shattered after her parents said they could not afford her university fees.

She was keen to further her education but her father decided to pay school fees for her brother, who is reading for a Diploma in Journalism.

Carol’s predicament symbolises challenges faced by many girls in Africa.

Those lucky few are also facing challenges in securing places to pursue programmes of their dreams, especially in the science faculty.

Phyllis Mabvuku applied for a Degree in Chemical Engineering with a Zambian elite university. Instead of being offered her degree of choice, she was surprised to realise that the university offered her a degree in the arts faculty.

Recent findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences testify that gender discrimination is still rampant is universities.

The findings state that universities recruit more men than women.

“Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science… Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups …

“Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant,” noted the findings.

Problems are further heightened by the fact that women are poorly represented in sciences despite legal requirements for equal opportunities in most African countries.

Shirley Malcom, a leader in efforts to improve access of girls and women to education and careers in science and engineering, said: “Women are too often absent from leadership positions in government ministries and are less likely to be members of science academies or sought for advisory committees – all places where research agendas or standards may be informed or set.

“Without women’s voices, certain issues may never be discussed, for example, the need for agricultural extension to support women  farmers or for education about women’s health.”

It is also critical to note that science processes, policies and procedures can also stifle women, especially where the patterns of their lives differ from men’s.

For example, women may be “early career” at an older age as a result of family responsibilities, potentially leaving them at a disadvantage in awards for “young scientists”.

However, Professor Lutfor Rahman, Chief Executive of the Association for Advancement of Information Technology, Dhaka, Bangladesh, believes that just educating girls in science can give new shape to a community, society or a country.

Consequently, to reduce the gender gap in science, equality should be part of any scientist’s basic training and at the same time be part of the culture and ethos of science.

This means stakeholders in the science fraternity in Africa must promote women’s visibility as recognising women’s contributions to science and helping them obtain collaborators by placing them on the world stage is one of the most effective ways of closing the gender gap.

In addition, academic departments need to provide ways for women trainee scientists to access what they need to be successful, including networks and mentors.

Similarly, employers need to make such opportunities available through formal training programmes as well as access to important assignments.

Furthermore, African governments need to come up with effective ways of improving girls’ education. They can do this by making education affordable and accessible to all children.

Educating girls is significant because it paves way for wider changes in families, workplaces and societies at large. Remember, girls education is always associated with positive development outcomes.

In a paper titled ‘Mainstreaming a gender perspective in Science, Technology and Information Policy’, Anne Miroux, Director, Division on Technology and Logistics, UNCTAD said gender equity in science and technology is important for development, as has long been recognised by the United Nations.

“Mainstreaming a gender perspective in Science, Technology and Innovation will hence both enhance social equity and bring significant benefits across the economic structure and social fabric, and contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and the attainment of sustainable development,” Miroux said.

Accordingly, African countries must ensure gender equality in science training if the continent is to realise its dream of solving her problems and also completely transforming the lives of her citizenry.

February 2014
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