HE Prof. Sarah Anyang Agbor, AU Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology;

 

HE Mr Bright Msaka, SC, Malawian Minister of Education, Science and Technology;

 

All the other Ministers here today;

 

CEOs of regional economic communities and private sector organisations;

 

Honoured guests;

 

Ladies and gentlemen:

 

 

I am very pleased to be participating in this dialogue today to speak about the very important issue of women's participation in science.

 

It is widely acknowledged that, in order for Africa to harness its demographic dividend, where women and the youth constitute the largest population groups, we need to see greater investment to endow this demographic with the skills, resources and policy environment required for them to be productive. The potential for African countries to benefit from their demographic dividend cannot be realised in the context of persistent gender discrimination and inequality, which leaves many women and girls disempowered.

 

 

It is fitting, therefore, that in discussing ways to strengthen science, technology and innovation (STI) in Africa, we also consider ways in which we can tap into this demographic by promoting the role and contribution of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Africa's developmental challenges cannot be substantially and holistically addressed if women are not adequately positioned as catalysts of scientific and technological excellence and economic transformation.

 

 

While it is important to provide an analysis of the situation in which women in STEM in the continent find themselves, it is also important to respond to the objectives of this summit by providing pragmatic solutions which will enable heads of state and the champions of the Committee of Ten to lead our collective efforts in achieving transformation in education, science and technology.

 

 

It is important to note that the reasons for the poor representation of women in science in Africa are similar to the barriers that women face all over the world. The under-representation of women in science is a pattern globally, where an average of 30% of science roles and top positions are held by women.  The Association of African Women in Science and Engineering estimates that women make up no more than 20% of the academics in STEM fields.  Furthermore women scientists tend to be concentrated in the lower echelons of responsibility and decision-making, with limited leadership opportunities.  In academia, women scientists tend to be confined to positions as lecturers and assistant researchers.  While some universities in the continent (including the Pan African University, which I would like to commend for appointing a women as the Vice-President of the Council) have made a concerted effort to appoint women in strategic executive positions, women are rarely appointed as professors, research directors or the principal investigators of major studies.

 

 

The indications are that the low participation of women in science at a higher level has its roots in early childhood.  In a study conducted by the United Nations, called "Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children's interests", it was found that, as early as the age of six, girls were already less likely than boys to describe their own gender as "brilliant", and less likely to join an activity labelled for "very, very smart" kids.  When young girls view themselves in this way they are less likely to enter technical fields as they go through the education system.  This needs to change.  Our education system needs to be changed so that these stereotypes are rooted out, and so that girls do not feel less capable than boys.  One also has to emphasise the role the family has as we socialise our children, where certain responsibilities are defined as being for boys and others for girls.

 

 

In spite of the challenges that I have outlined, the percentage of women employed in research and development in Africa exceeds the global average of 28%.  With women constituting 30% of researchers in the continent, we are doing better than West Asia (19%) and East Asia and the Pacific (23%).  We are also not too far behind North America and Western Europe, which are both at about 32%.

 

 

When looking at the most recent surveys, we see that women researchers in South Africa make up 44% of the R&D workforce compared to 40% seven years before.  However, the number of black women in the R&D workforce is low.  We hope that through initiatives such as our National Research Foundation Sabbatical Grants, the number of young black women researchers with PhD qualifications in the R&D workforce will be considerably increased.

 

 

In an attempt to increase research excellence in fields of strategic importance, the Department of Science and Technology introduced the South African Research Chairs Initiative.  We recently managed to increase the number of women appointments in these positions to 40% of the 201 research chairs.

 

 

We have also positioned the National Advisory Council on Innovation, one of the key national entities which measures the impact derived from the implementation of national STI policies and strategies, as an advisor to the Minister of Science and Technology on gender transformation and gender mainstreaming.

 

 

Several regional economic communities have also taken steps to promote women's participation in STEM:

  • The East African Community has adopted a Gender and STI Framework, which promotes gender mainstreaming and gender equity in STI, entrepreneurship training and education.

 

  • The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is systematically implementing its Protocol on Gender and Development, which supports equal access to science and mathematics education for boys and girls. It was in June this year that Ministers of Education, Science and Technology in the SADC region, including me, signed the SADC Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Charter. This Charter aims to strengthen the collaboration of women in STEM fields, promote women and girls' access to STEM education and professional careers, and ensure greater participation by women in STEM decision and policy making bodies. 

 

 

At a continent-wide level, the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Awards for Scientific Excellence stands out for its Regional Awards, which specifically recognise women who are frontrunners in their STEM careers and their use of STEM to solve national challenges that also have a transnational face.

 

 

The Next Einstein Forum is also gaining traction in igniting cross-sectoral dialogue on bridging the gap for women in STEM.  With a focus on developing the next generation of African scientists, the Next Einstein Fellows Programme is an initiative that recognises Africa's best young scientists and technologists.  At least 40% of these innovators and emerging leaders are women.

 
 

 

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and champions, the promotion of women as a key demographic in using STEM to achieve high-impact economic transformation that addresses the key elements of our development challenges requires the following:

 

  • If we are to position education, science and technology as primary elements of attaining an African development agenda driven by our competitive advantages and aligned to the African Renaissance, we need to start thinking about a continent-wide women in STEM programme, in which AU members share good practices from existing women in STEM initiatives that have demonstrated high impact, and obtained national, regional and global recognition.

 

  • Deliberate actions need to be taken to place women in positions alongside men so that they can influence and determine the continent's research and innovation agenda together, ensuring that the quality of life of African people can be improved regardless of their gender.  This requires gender policy frameworks and guidelines that will ensure gender mainstreaming, not only in academic institutions, but also in the public and private sectors, where women and men are employed as a result of their STEM expertise.

 

  • Education plays a key role in transforming and changing the manner in which women and men are culturally perceived as active agents of change and development.  Access to education and an education system that has a gender-sensitive curriculum right from the elementary stage are vital.  Africa cannot and will not harness its demographic dividend unless boys and girls are given equal opportunities and women are equipped with the requisite skills.

 

 

Women and girls are half of the world's population and, for a long time, their opportunities to participate in the formal economy have been limited because of gender inequality.  With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women empowerment is no longer an option but a necessity.  Indeed, for the world to achieve sustainable development as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals, women can no longer be spectators – they have to become history makers.

 

 

I thank you.