Wings to Fly: Empowering Girls and Women to Close the STEM Leadership Gap in Africa

A bird cannot fly with one wing.”


This concise but powerful statement comes to mind as I reflect on the progress of African women and girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated each year on 11th February.

In many African countries girls and women still do not have access to the same education and economic opportunities as boys and men, exacerbating inequalities that relegate them to informal sector work (which is largely manual, unpaid labour), diminished purchasing capacity and generational cycles of poverty. Even in instances where they do receive access to quality education, other social and cultural barriers often prevent them from rising to the very top in their professional fields, keeping them at entry- and mid-level positions where they cannot participate in decision-making.

Despite increasingly louder calls for science and gender equality, which are both vital to achieving the global development goals, the disparities in male and female representation in health and other science-based fields remain stark. Just 28% of researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa are women, who also represent an estimated 70% of the global health workforce but are paid 11% less than their male counterparts for the same work. In fact, according to the African Academy of Sciences, 56% of women are not remunerated in line with their qualifications, despite being hired on merit.

It is time for us to challenge the status quo. It is time to break down the barriers that stand in the way of women and girls succeeding in science.

 Failure to address these challenges today will make us complicit in the engenderment of inequality on the continent.

Africa is already missing out on the benefits of a more gendered approach to addressing critical health issues such as the burden of infectious diseases and access to quality, affordable sexual and reproductive health services – but we can change this by empowering women and girls to succeed in the sciences. By recognising and investing in their potential and elevating them to leadership positions we can ensure that current and future generations enjoy remarkable gains in health, science, technology and innovation.

This is not about bringing men down to elevate women, as is often assumed in conversations about gender equality. It’s about tapping into the precious, diverse talent pool presented by Africa’s female population for the advancement of our health and development goals – which will ultimately benefit all: boys, girls, men, women and children.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could steer clear of dialogue that seeks to pit women against men or force women to justify their need to be treated as equals, and instead take a moment to truly reflect on what must be done to give us all a better chance at fuller, more prosperous lives?

Empowering more women and girls to fully participate in science, from entry level to the highest decision-making levels, will be a significant step towards closing the STEM leadership gap and setting us all up for success.

For just like a bird needs both its wings to fly, our continent – and the world – needs the contributions of women and men in science, to achieve prosperity in all its forms.