Nampala Jane from Uganda was elated when I enquired about her Science exhibit. The student from Kyebambe Girls’ Secondary School was one of the delegates at the Celebration of International Day for Girls and Women in Science, 2018. Present were also women in different professions in STEM and Kenyan students from high schools and universities. This joyous event had been held by UNESCO & UN Women Africa in collaboration with Microsoft East Africa and Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE).
Her exhibits were low-key security systems that unsuspecting burglars would overlook while trespassing a home or property. She beamed with pride as she explained how they functioned. Two of the displays were security gadgets, while one was a flood-detector. After eloquently describing the physics behind how they work, she revealed the inspiration behind the project.
“Where I come from, there are floods and this can help to prevent hazards from becoming tragedies. There are also thieves who would sneak into your room or your school box when you’re asleep. This will scare them away and wake you up.”
The beauty of her gadgets was in their simplicity. If members of the local community accessed these gadgets, security would be boosted, natural hazards detected early and massive destruction prevented. With such innovations from women and girls, there is a lot to celebrate.
It was evident through the general attendance that women are pursuing and succeeding in science, albeit there is a long way to go. Speakers noted that girls and women are doing well in publication and in accessing grants and funds. Science Societies, such as Kenyatta University Female Students in Science and Technology (KUFESST) were recognized for their roles in shaping girls in schools to becoming successful in STEM careers.
CHALLENGES THAT WOMEN IN STEM EXPERIENCE
The biggest challenges for women in STEM have been gender stereotype, inadequate mentorship and exposure programs. Speakers at the event talked about the challenges and gave solutions.
“It bugs me that the challenges my kids go through are the same challenges I went through in STEM, thirty years ago.” Hendrina Doroba, Executive Director of FAWE told the delegates. “This means that we should be taking a different approach.” In addition, she noted due to affirmative action against gender disparity in STEM, girls had started to relax. She insisted that girls and women need to get more aggressive in applying for opportunities in STEM.
In order to break the gender stereotype, different approaches were proposed.
“We need to demystify Physics and create a friendly environment for girls as a way to fight stereotype,” said Dr. Ali Deyaham, a Lecturer and Researcher in Physics, University of Nairobi. “There should also be mobility outside Physics. Some girls and young women want to pursue Physics careers outside academics.”
From a young age, girls believe that Science is a male-dominated discipline and therefore avoid it and are excluded.
Prof. Catherine Ngila, the Deputy President of Training, Academic and Linkages in Kenya Pipeline Company noted that their company had lesser job and internship female applicants in the engineering section compared to the other departments such as HR and administration.
Ms. Amelia Omollo, an Aeronautical engineer at Kenya Airways admitted that many African and local policies fail due to lack of holistic approaches. The government should take the lead by integrating STEM mentorship into the curriculum. These approaches would help accommodate girls in places labelled as male-dominated.
“Before the year 2000, there was no space for women in the military. When I was pregnant, my boss did not know what to do with me.” She told the delegates.
She also recommended that girls aim to be skilled and schools take initiative to sending girls to STEM Camps held by UNESCO.
Women in science are calling for further support from donors and interested parties, to enable the further empowerment of women in science. Microsoft Africa is one of the good examples of Tech companies that have supported the education of girls by giving learning materials and classroom practices that are gender-responsive.