/ 4 June 2015

Africa needs more women hooked on science

Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani is one of the few female mathematicians to have penetrated the glass ceiling.
Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani is one of the few female mathematicians to have penetrated the glass ceiling.

It’s still a man’s world in African science. The marginalisation of women in science is not unique, though, to the continent. It is a pattern around the globe. It has been estimated that on average, only 30% of science roles throughout the world are held by women.

In the 114 years that Nobel prizes have been awarded, 47 women have received prizes, with only 16 being honoured in what is termed the disciplinary areas of the awards (that is, not including literature and peace). Two of these prizes were in physics, five in chemistry, eight in physiology and medicine, and one in economics.

The Fields Medal, which is awarded to outstanding mathematicians under 40, has only once in the past 70 years been given to a woman – Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani in 2014. The Abel Prize, instituted in 2003 for mathematicians, has never been won by a woman.

Representation of women in the sciences is even more dire in Africa. Reliable and recent data beyond South Africa is scant. This in itself is an indictment on the limited attention paid to women in the sciences.

Where data becomes available, it does not paint a positive picture. Only three of the 13 members of the council of the Academy of Science of South Africa are women, although it has a female executive officer.

In most other academies of science across the continent, the norm is that there is one female council member, or none at all. In April this year the University of Cape Town appointed chemical engineer Alison Lewis as the first female dean of engineering at the 186-year old institution. She is the second woman in South Africa to hold such a post.

The Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering estimates that women make up no more than 20% of the academics in these fields in Africa. In South Africa, slightly fewer than 40% of scientists, engineers and technologists are women – and, as in the United States, the figures are lower in the physical sciences. South Africa’s science statistics look a little better than the continent’s because they include health sciences professionals.

South Africa at least has a host of distinguished women scholars who, like Lewis, are admirably suited to lead departments, faculties, universities, research foundations and institutes. Three of South Africa’s six world-leading researchers in their fields, as of 2014, are women.

Among the reasons for Africa’s limited number of women in science-related fields is that historically, girls and women have not had the same access to education as their male counterparts.

Methods of teaching science have not considered gender equality in teacher education and curriculum development. There is a tradition in some schools of encouraging boys to study physical science and girls to focus on biology and become teachers.

Institutional structures and a persistent lack of support in the workplace have disadvantaged women in their quest to progress in scientific careers. Furthermore, discrimination remains – in academia as elsewhere in society.

Sexism is still a major barrier. A recent review of an article submitted to open-access science journal the Public Library of Science suggested that female authors find a man to work with if they want a paper to be accepted. The journal’s editors either did not notice the reviewer’s comment or thought it reasonable – until the female authors drew it to world’s attention by tweeting the remark.

These factors ensure that women remain in the minority of science and engineering disciplines in academia.

There is a strong case to be made for having more female scientists. Increasing women’s involvement, input and access to science and technology is essential to reducing poverty, creating job opportunities and increasing agricultural and industrial productivity. It is also key to improving how we use technology, especially in the vital developmental areas of water resources management, food production and processing, and sanitation.

Some steps are being taken to remedy the disparity. The Academy of Science of South Africa is conducting a series of studies to highlight the role that women are playing in various aspects of science, for example.

The continent has a great deal to do to encourage women to take up careers in science, technology and innovation – starting at school level.

Nearly 30-million African girls between the ages of six and 15 are not in school. Getting women into the sciences is not possible unless we deal with this problem first.

John Butler-Adam is the editor-in-chief of the South African Journal of Science and a consultant to the University of Pretoria. This article first appeared in the conversation.com/africa.

The Conversation