“The reality is, when it comes to women’s leadership, we are all behind”
The African Academy of Sciences Fellow in Chemical sciences, Prof Ameenah Gurib Fakim, was the sixth President of the Republic of Mauritius, and was one of just 13 women out of a total of 178 heads of state in the world. In Africa she and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, were the only two women heads of state in Africa at the time. She explains how this is not just an African problem, but a global problem. To rectify it, we need all the world’s leaders to empower women, not just the world’s women leaders empowering other women.
The AAS Fellows are eminent scientists elected based on their publication record, demonstrated innovation, leadership roles and contribution to policy. Fellows provide strategic leadership to shape the AAS’s programmes, engage with governments to enable wise scientific investment on the continent, serve as reviewers for AAS grant applications and as mentors to early career scientists.
Science, technology and innovation (STI) has the power to disrupt and shift trajectories, and influence all aspects of life today, not just careers directly in the sciences. It is through STI solutions that businesses and social enterprise can grow, we can improve health outcomes, including the sexual and reproductive health that is so important to enable women and girls to determine their own destinies, provide clean energy, manage the environment and develop infrastructure. So, we need to encourage all our young people, regardless of gender, to be full participants in driving an STI-based African future.
However, there are explicit and subtle factors that contribute to the discouragement of girls from pursuing careers in science and technology. In my own small country of Mauritius, where progress for women and girls in the sciences made a big leap when the country became independent in 1976, I am proud to report that we are a world leader in the proportion of women who receive PhDs in science disciplines.
But notwithstanding these impressive gains in girls’ education, the bad news is real, and it is sobering. The gender gaps in education persist. This is evident in the fact that 16 million girls between the ages of 6 and 11 worldwide will, tragically, never start school, compared to 8 million boys. The gap widens when one moves beyond education, to factor in future employment and wage earnings. This leaky pipeline, where we lose the potential contributions of girls in STI starting from the youngest years of school through early and mature career stages, means we are losing potential talent to contribute to our prosperity and wellbeing.
There are great divides in women’s access to, participation in, support for and leadership within the STI sector, despite women being on the frontlines of sustainable energy use, climate change adaptation, economic production and as protectors of extensive traditional knowledge. Discounting opportunities of women to fully contribute to all sectors of our economy and society is like trying to win a prize fight with one arm in a sling. A recent media article showed how ‘countries led by women have fared better against coronavirus with success these female leaders have encountered during the ongoing global pandemic leading to wider conversations regarding male versus female leadership styles’.
Not just as the former President of my country, but also as an academic, a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife and as a scientist, I look around me at these women, both known to us and part of the vast anonymous sisterhood of resourceful, inspirational African women, on whose shoulders I stand. My advice to girls and young women who wish to become a leader is to get the best education they can, and to consider focusing that education on science, technology and innovation.