The Blog

Africa Needs More Female Scientific Leaders

Persistent gender bias also explains the low proportions of women in the highest echelons of science and technology. A particularly damaging stereotype is the 'maternal wall', which stems from expectations that a woman's job performance will be affected by her taking time off to have children, or absences from work to take care of her family.

International Women's Day is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the gains that we have made in closing gender gaps in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the evidence is impressive. The World Bank reports that, by 2008, there were 91 girls for every 100 boys in primary school. In addition, at 61%, women in sub-Saharan Africa have one of the highest labour force participation rates in the world.

Women are also playing an increasingly important role in policy making at the highest levels. Rwanda and Senegal top the list of countries with the highest proportion of women in parliament. In addition, female heads of state are stewarding their countries with incredible resilience and foresight. Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf deserves special recognition for her strong leadership during the recent Ebola crisis, which killed 4,500 Liberians and infected a further 10,000 people. What's more, after only eight months in office, Mauritian President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, also our Vice Chair and Trustee, is providing a strong voice in encouraging African governments to strengthen their investments in scientific research.

Yet these impressive gains are not reflected in the sciences, and there remains a critical shortage of female scientists, researchers and engineers on the continent. According to UNESCO's recent Science Report: Towards 2030, women account for just under in one in three researchers in Africa. Although the share of women studying engineering is fairly high compared to other regions, less than 20% of graduates are female, with the notable exceptions of Liberia and Mozambique.

These statistics are very concerning. For me, enhancing female representation in the sciences is not a simply matter of fairness, it is a business and developmental imperative for our continent. Science and technology are crucial drivers of development, as they can help boost job creation, and help the continent address its most pressing challenges. If we want to ensure that the continent remains a competitive place to do business and that sustainable development is a reality for all, we ensure that our full talent pool has the required scientific and technical competences. Consequently, we need to take decisive action to boost the representation of women in the sciences, especially at the highest levels. As the leading source of job creation and a recognised engine of growth, I believe that businesses can and should help African countries create more female scientific leaders.

UNESCO reports that a number of factors reduce the proportion of women at each stage at a scientific career, including performance evaluation criteria that places greatest weight on publication in prestigious academic journals. Additional research suggests that the publication rate of female researchers is lower than that for men, which is explained by women's limited access to funding and lower status. Given the enormous financial and technical resources at their disposal, for-profit businesses can help address this problem by providing funding for talented scientists and researchers to pursue their research interests in African universities. For example, they could contribute to the recently launched Alliance for Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a new initiative that aims to help drive Africa's research agenda and build scientific capacity across the continent. Local funding will help ensure that women have the support needed to pursue their research interests. As a businessman, I do want to highlight that these programmes are not about gifting. Rather, these initiatives help expose companies to top talent, and incentivise our best and brightest to stay on the continent. Furthermore, enhancing access to research funding will help empower female scientists and researchers to create new solutions to Africa's greatest development challenges.

Persistent gender bias also explains the low proportions of women in the highest echelons of science and technology. A particularly damaging stereotype is the 'maternal wall', which stems from expectations that a woman's job performance will be affected by her taking time off to have children, or absences from work to take care of her family. As Joan C. Williams, a leading feminist legal scholar explains, women who have previously been praised for their professional achievements, may find their competence questioned once they fall pregnant, take maternity leave, and their performance evaluations may plummet. In scientific research environments, Sophia Huyer, Director of Women in Global Science and Technology, writes that women who take leave for family reasons sacrifice progress in their careers, and may be deemed in need of retraining in their field when they return.

As a result, she argues that 'changing the current system of performance appraisal to accommodate women's child-bearing years without obliging them to sacrifice their careers is the single most important step towards rectifying this situation'. A great example is PwC, which allows parents taking extended leave to carry over their performance rating from the year before so they don't need to worry about receiving a lower rating. More importantly, although many governments and organisations have policies that promote supportive working environments, as EY reports, they don't always enforce these consistently. Given their considerable influence, I would call on all private sector companies, particularly in the scientific fields, to create and enforce an organisational culture that makes taking advantage of flexible working programmes a norm, not an exception. This will help ensure that more women are able to reach the highest levels of their organisations, which, in itself, can enhance business outcomes.

Finally, we must recognise the contributions of leading female scientists and researchers across the continent. Given their significant brand equity and financial resources, businesses are well-positioned to celebrate talented women in the sciences for their achievements. For example, seventeen years ago, L'Oréal and UNESCO founded the For Women in Science programme to promote the importance of ensuring greater participation of women in science. Every year, they acknowledge five brilliant young female researchers in Africa and the Arab States, Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and North America for their contributions to physical science. In 2007, the inspirational Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim received this prize and it provided further means to pursue important independent research projects. Such initiatives complement the efforts of the African Union, led by the distinguished scientist H.E Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, which offers trailblazing women scientists the African Union Regional Award for Women Scientists. High-profile recognition of talented female scientists and researchers will go some way to shattering misconceptions that women cannot do as well as men in these fields.

Ultimately, sustainable development for Africa will only become a reality if we have a critical mass of scientists, researchers and engineers. We must create an enabling environment for women to pursue productive and meaningful careers in the sciences, and help tackle our countries' developmental priorities. I call on private sector companies operating across the continent to join forces with African governments, universities, and the broader civil society to address this crucial issue.