KIGALI – A girl in Ethiopia could grow up to engineer a new method for improving agricultural yields, if only she could meet the right mentor. A young woman in Malawi has ideas for new cancer treatments, but will never apply them if she is pushed out of school. And a girl in Rwanda has all the skills to create a mathematical model to mitigate droughts; all she needs is a research grant to help her pay for college.
There is a global gender imbalance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – the so-called STEM disciplines. But in Africa, this imbalance is doing more than threatening individual futures. It is also depriving the continent of talents and contributions needed to drive development and progress. A 2011 African Development Bank report finds that “getting women into science and technology ultimately promises to benefit society as a whole.”
Gender equity in STEM is achievable, and many African scholars are showing the world how to do it. But they need help, and programs that offer scholarships and support are among the best ways to achieve parity in the sciences.
The causes of Africa’s STEM gender imbalance are often compared to a leaky pipe: girls start out with interest and aptitude, but drop out of the disciplines at various points in their education. Early data from a Mastercard Foundation initiative aimed at reversing these trends show that a comprehensive approach to plugging the leaks can make a difference.
Success begins with acknowledging that gender equity in STEM matters. “Science needs us” is how Armanda Kouassi, an industrial engineer and former Mastercard Foundation scholar, puts it. “With different ideas and perspectives come better solutions and thinking that can move scientific innovations forward and benefit the whole of Africa.”
Kouassi is right. Africa cannot afford to squander its young, female talent. Sub-Saharan Africa faces a shortfall of some 2.5 million engineers, technologists, mathematicians, and scientists. This dearth of expertise threatens a number of Sustainable Development Goals, such as food security, health care, clean water and sanitation, energy, and infrastructure.
Removing gender barriers to STEM requires African governments to make equity in the sciences a priority. Nowhere is this happening more successfully than in Rwanda, where our collective experience has helped more than 1,250 girls and young women excel in STEM disciplines.
The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, is one of these agents of change. The school believes that the next Einstein could be an African woman, an educational approach that informs its comprehensive strategy to plug leaks in the STEM development pipeline.
AIMS’s innovative approach includes helping governments train teachers, ensure that female students are not vastly outnumbered in their classrooms, support students who are mothers, and engage with industry leaders to help graduates succeed in their careers. To attract more female students, 30% of the school’s scholarships are reserved for female applicants, and the school aspires to reach 50% in the near future.
Similarly, Carnegie Mellon University Africa (CMU-Africa), also in Kigali, is championing change by allocating 30% of its scholarships to young women. These commitments will have a positive effect on the entire institution, as CMU-Africa seeks to increase dramatically enrollment of female scientists.
Finally, the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) in Rwanda has funded the education of 1,200 girls enrolled at the country’s top-performing secondary schools specializing in STEM subjects. Of these students, an estimated 70% are expected to study science at the university level.
Despite these positive developments, quotas alone will not achieve parity. To make lasting gains, opportunities outside the classroom are also needed. At FAWE Rwanda, a program called Tuseme (a Swahili word meaning “let’s speak out”) offers girls leadership training through drama, song, and creative arts to teach presentation, negotiation, and decision-making skills. FAWE Rwanda also works with teachers to develop gender-responsive pedagogical methods.
Likewise, at CMU-Africa, scholars are invited to participate in the university’s Meeting of the Minds Symposium, an annual global gathering for undergraduates to showcase their work to a wider audience of faculty, students, government officials, and industry representatives. And, the Next Einstein Forum, a select program at AIMS that recognizes Africa’s best young scientists and technologists – of which 40% are women – provides emerging innovators with an opportunity to lead their own research while inspiring the next generation of scientific thinkers.
Inequalities faced by girls and young women in African education cannot be erased overnight. As Rebecca, a Mastercard Foundation scholar from Uganda, remembers, “When I was at my school, the boys used to call us ‘half-men,’ because if you’re a lady and you go for sciences, you’re a half-man.” But, Rebecca adds, “It was cool being a science student.”
Africa needs more women who share Rebecca’s enthusiasm for STEM. To ensure that science remains appealing to girls, schools, governments, and industries must cooperate to educate teachers and mentors, and allocate funding to close the gender gap.
As Miranda, another Mastercard Foundation scholar, recently observed, “As we try to find new innovations and inventions to drive the economy, I believe that math and science is at the forefront of that progress.” As professionals working to improve African education, we couldn’t agree more.
Aminata Garba is an assistant teaching professor in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University Africa. Dorothy Nyambi is Executive Vice President of the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). Hendrina Doroba is Executive Director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE). Ivy Mwai is a senior program manager at the Mastercard Foundation.
By Aminata Garba, Dorothy Nyambi, Hendrina Doroba, and Ivy Mwai