Each year, on 11th February, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is commemorated to promote women’s full and equal access and participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). To celebrate the day this year, we sat down with Hellen Barsosio, a Senior Clinical Research Scientist at Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Centre for Global Health Research, and June Musau, the Country Engagement and Support Coordinator for the Financing Alliance for Health, for a conversation on African women’s participation in STEM, their role as leaders and what they need to prosper in this field.
As part of WomenLift Health’s cohort, they have paved their way to leadership positions in their fields and shared a wealth of advice with us.
Read on to learn more about their experiences and the opportunities they see for more African girls and women to excel in STEM.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what made you interested in joining the STEM space?
Hellen: I trained as a medical doctor in Kenya. I did my post-graduate training at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of Oxford and now the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). My dad got me interested in STEM when I was still very young (<10 years old). He used herbal medicine, and so did my grandmother. This knowledge had been passed on from generation to generation. They both came from another era and shared wild stories about their herbal medicine adventures, like how far they travelled to get herbs and how everyone in their village knew our family as ‘healers’.
I wanted to be a healer just like them, but the modern kind. So, on my 10th birthday, I told my dad I wanted to be a medical doctor. He nurtured that interest, tracked my performance in maths and sciences and got me extra tuition if needed. Then I got into medical school at 19 years, and I discovered a whole new world. I spent a year studying the analgesic effect of Khat (miraa) on mice and dose calibration. My interest in research grew from there. I went back to complete medical school, but I knew I was going to follow a research path, with or without active clinical practice. The rest is history.
June: I always had this inclination towards science subjects. I had this intrinsic desire to work for and with humanity to solve the never-ending societal challenges that affect our overall health and well-being. After high school, I sought to join a course in Clinical Medicine. However, the process of joining college involved using back doors and in some cases having to bribe your way in. My parents would never hear of that. This is how I lost my chance to study my chosen course. Instead, I enrolled for an accounting professional certificate course, and many years later enrolled for a master’s degree in Health Systems Management. As a high school teacher, I taught in a refugee setting for two years, this was the stepping stone into the STEM space.
Fast forward, in the last 15 years I have continued to work in STEM in Africa, in the health sector, which fills me with immense joy as I am serving humanity, meeting other women in the same space who have in one way or another encouraged my ambitions and goals as a woman in STEM.
When you first started off in STEM, is there anything you wished you had known that would have made overcoming hurdles easier?
Hellen: I wish I got good, nurturing and supportive mentors from the start. I wish I was intentional about seeking such mentors. It would have saved me a lot of time trying to figure things out on my own through trial and error. Also, mentors have great networks, which helps when you need guidance on funding, writing well, etc.
I also wished I had spent more time thinking through my five and ten-year plans and getting to the roots of ‘why I do what I do’, my purpose, and just finding my ‘ikigai’ (reason for being) soon. That needs a lot of introspection, and great mentors or leadership coaches help with that too. This would have helped me focus my efforts, time and energy. I spread myself too thin in my early and middle years doing ‘everything’.
June: Navigating the space as a woman can be intimidating and demotivating. Over the years, the space has been dominated by the male gender. However, we are now seeing women rising to leadership roles in the STEM space, sitting around policy and decision-making tables with their male counterparts and making their voices heard. Besides policy and decision-making, women in STEM are innovating through research, discovering, and walking with younger women to encourage them to join this space full of opportunities for women.
That said, I wish I knew that I could be anything I wanted to be in STEM right from the start. I only needed to step back, pause and define what success would look like for me in a STEM career. Now that I know, I can confidently say that the definition of my journey to success in STEM is defined and I will go for it. Nothing stops me from achieving that.
Studies show that there is a “leaky pipeline” that causes young girls to lose interest while in school, leading to fewer women in STEM careers. What can academic institutions, STEM organizations and governments do to keep girls involved in STEM, and how can the public help?
Hellen: First, I firmly believe role-modelling and mentorship is the key to getting girls to see STEM as a viable path, keeping them in STEM (because you need a lot of support to hang on, and you need to see people to look up to) and growing in STEM (because it’s easy to get discouraged if you are not growing in your field). I cannot over-emphasize the importance of role models. I would like to see more women in STEM showing up on social media (like TikTok 😊), TV etc., and talking about their work as part of public engagement for STEM. You never know which little girl is watching.
Second, we need pro-women policies e.g. pro-women grants, pro-women hiring practices, and career-break grants for women returning to science after a family break raising children. My leadership project through WomenLift addresses this exact issue – getting women into science through pro-women hiring practices and keeping and helping women grow in science through mentorship. I don’t have the answers, but I recognize we need everyone to help bring in women to science and help them stay and grow. We need male allies to come out as strong advocates because STEM is still very male-dominated, and we need pragmatic solutions e.g. creating supportive environments for women taking breaks to start families and still coming back to science. I now see UK funders have career-break grants for women scientists returning to science after family breaks raising their children. This, what the UK funders are doing, is precious and a great way to fix the “leaky pipeline”.
June: The formative years of young girls is the opportune time to intervene and create interest in STEM careers. In addition to parental guidance and influence from family members and other societal role models; academic institutions, STEM organizations and governments play a major role in keeping girls interested in STEM.
Academic institutions’ policies, faculty and environment should be conducive for young girls interested in STEM careers. Faculty need to have ongoing conversations right from elementary, middle school and through high school where young girls are encouraged to consider joining STEM careers. They need to demystify stereotypes about STEM and build interest in science subjects among girls.
Further, mentorship of girls at academic institutions should be intentional. These institutions can present women who are excelling in STEM to speak to young girls about STEM careers and how to navigate the challenging career field, organise career fairs focused on STEM targeting young girls and make success in STEM more visible and accessible to young girls. Governments should consider putting in place incentives such as bursaries, scholarships, and internship programs that attract young girls into the STEM space right from school into the workforce. Additionally, strategic multisectoral partnerships can bring together private, public and academic institutions to foster a joint and intentional investment in STEM for young girls.
Women – especially women of colour – have historically been paid less than their male counterparts in a lot of industries, including the health and research space. Just 28% of researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa are women, and they are paid 11% less than their male counterparts for the same work. What advice would you give to a young woman seeking to find their worth at work?
Hellen: Don’t get me started on this one! We are paid less and under-negotiated in the absence of supportive, equitable HR policies. My advice, do your research before going for the interview. You can ask indirectly about the pay scales and the range and where the most senior and junior person in that range gets paid. Then assess your package (experience, skills, networks etc.) and determine where you fall. Suppose you are unsure; ask about it during the interview as part of the questions.
When I applied for my current job, I was coming into it with good work experience and I also knew my skills, values, and enthusiasm were valuable. At the time, the centre was hiring a few people. I got the first offer and asked other candidates what they had asked for and been offered. The male candidate had been offered 29% more money than me! So I asked (politely, tactfully, referencing the evidence) to be paid what the men in my position were offered, or I wouldn’t take the job. However this strategy doesn’t always work, so read the organization and see what works from your research.
June: I want to begin by telling young women seeking to find their worth at work that, ‘their worth is not defined by their salary’. Salary is liquid, and service to humanity is worthwhile. You are richer when you serve and bring about change in humanity.
I remember back in 2008, I wanted to change jobs not because I was going to earn more than my current job then, but just to work in an international organization with a global mandate. My Country Director was disturbed by the sudden move. He took it upon himself to talk to me and offer a little bit of advice and career guidance. He did not present a counteroffer but asked me to hang on as I was just beginning to get noticed in the STEM space because of my work. He is the reason later I enrolled and pursued a master’s degree in health systems management and ended up working for five years in that organization witnessing personal growth as the organization expanded in scope and human capacity. This five-year experience opened an array of opportunities to date. The networks established then are still my networks today! Many thanks to Mr Edward Kimani Mungai.
No matter how long it took me to be a woman leader in the STEM space, I can today say that money/salary does not define my worth at work but at the end of the day, my service to humanity is more rewarding.
Lastly, what does an enabling environment for women in STEM leadership look like to you? And how can we foster such spaces?
Hellen: This is a hard one because my workspace is not there yet, but we are working to change that. If I could list what that ideal environment looks like, I would say:
- Nurturing and supportive (mentorship): helps you find your niche and encourages you to grow in that direction with lots of support.
- Access to networks: open environment with access to new networks and collaboration.
- Pro-women (affirmative action) grants: offer more grants to support women’s return to science.
- Collaborative: science tends to be cutthroat and egotistic. We want less of that and more collaborative/teamwork spaces.
June: Quite a number of things come to mind as I think about what an enabling environment for women in STEM leadership looks like.
To foster spaces that enable personal and professional career growth in STEM, there is a need for:
- Strong training and development programs that offer a clear pathway to career growth.
- A culture of coaching and mentorship.
- Gender equity, diversity and inclusion, therefore intentionally increasing the number of women in leadership.
- Institutional policies and frameworks that foster enabling environments for women in STEM leadership, such as policies that promote work-life balance and professional growth.