12 February 2021
The role of Science in improving the state of African health and more broadly facilitating the continent’s broader development goals of promoting economic development cannot be underestimated. Science is a critical element of the African Union’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future – Agenda 2063. Science plays a role in education and skills development as well as building a knowledge economy fit for taking on African and global challenges like tackling the COVID-19 pandemic but also ensuring inclusive growth and sustainable development.
Science learning, training and jobs create critical thinkers, improves science literacy, and brings about the next generation of innovators. Yet, despite nearly 17% of the world’s population calling Africa home its capabilities and opportunities in science is lagging. Most scientific jobs are being performed by non-Africans or outsourced and when we look to women and girls in science the picture is even more challenging.
Only 30% of researchers in sub-Saharan Africa are women, according to UNESCO estimates and women are also paid less and get published less often then their male counterparts. Despite the difficulties we have seen some improvements in recent years. There has been an increase in women researchers across South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Cameroon and Ethiopia. However, gender disparities still remain leaving women scientists in junior positions and limited leadership opportunities.
The result of this gender disparity means that scientific work is missing women’s perspectives and contributions to critical innovation. This weakens the science agenda and therefore goes beyond the issue of fairness and equity. Failing to address this disparity means a failure to create scientific innovation that reflects and accounts for the interests and needs of the whole community. Ultimately, how can we ensure scientific developments are relevant if they do not take into consideration the needs of half the population? Without more women being present when these decisions innovation can only go so far.
There is also a simple economic argument for including Women and Girls in science. According to research undertaken by the McKinsey Global Institute, gender parity in the workplace could also add up to $28 trillion (or 26%) to the annual global GDP by 2025.
More than 49 million girls are out of primary and secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa so we need to start with basic education. It is vital that more girls complete their basic education. Beyond this, throughout the schooling system we should nurture, support and encourage girl’s who have an interest in science, and finally we need to ensure the professional pathways for such careers remain as open and flexible for women as possible.
It is not always necessary to take traditional routes to a scientific career so offering more concrete opportunities for early-stage funding of innovations and mentorship is a powerful way of encouraging broader participation. For example, I am a Jury Member for the recently launched Africa Young Innovators for Health Award, which is an investment in the human capital of Africa’s promising young entrepreneurs in the healthcare sector. This Award offers mentoring opportunities for the winners as well as financial support to develop their healthcare innovation and technical help with intellectual property, should they require it.
Furthermore, visibility matters because female leaders inspire other female leaders. Inhibited visibility, or lack of publicised role models, can harm number of women aiming for leadership roles. Therefore, Speak Up Africa is about to launch the African Voices of Science platform to promote access to reliable evidence and information, particularly in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. On this platform we will seek to especially feature and champion Women and Girls who are trusted African science leaders and health experts to share reliable information with African populations.
The time is now for Governments, the private sector and academia to work together to provide opportunities and support for women and girls to access the careers and education they deserve. In doing so, Women and Girls can play a more active role in boosting the transformation of African economies, fueling innovation and from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic getting us closer to critical healthcare solutions quicker.Not taking this opportunity now means we stand to miss out on one of the biggest opportunities we have, developing strong, resilient knowledge-based economies and societies across Africa that can help overcome the many global and local challenges facing the continent.