UP-led Project Inspires African Girls to Engage in Science

UP-led Project Inspires African Girls to Engage in Science

To celebrate International Day for Women and Girls in Science, female researchers from the FSNet-Africa network inspired young girls to pursue careers in science.

 Women and girls play an important role in science, as shown by the many stories highlighting women’s contributions to important scientific discoveries and advances. However, globally, female researchers remain significantly under-represented, with only 12% of the membership of national science academies being women. Women scientists face various social, economic, and cultural barriers that undermine their pursuit of careers in science. Women researchers often have shorter and less well-paid careers and are often passed over for promotion. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 32% of researchers are women. Women face significant barriers to career progression because of their multiple roles in society. As mothers, women carry a much higher unpaid care workload. This includes looking after children, the elderly, and the sick. On average, women spend over twice the amount of time on unpaid care work that men do. Women also devote a far larger amount of time to cooking, cleaning, and other household responsibilities. Juggling this work as well as formal employment responsibilities often means that women have limited time to pursue career advancement opportunities. Therefore, the participation of women and girls in science needs to be actively encouraged and supported.

The University of Pretoria (UP), through the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) project, addresses this gender gap in science through its support of the career advancement of female early-career researchers involved in food systems research on the continent. In February this year, FSNet-Africa hosted an outreach event to inspire young girls during the celebration of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science. The overall objective of this day is to give visibility to the women scientists who have made a difference in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, despite the multiple challenges they face, and to encourage young upcoming female scientists to look beyond gender stereotypes and embrace STEM careers.

The outreach event was done via an episode of a regularly hosted chat show on Twitter Spaces entitled In Conversation with FSNet-Africa. For this particular episode, the special guest interviewer was 11-year-old Chikomborero (Chiko) Gandidzanwa, a scientist in her own right. Sharing more about her interest in the sciences, Chiko said: “I am a girl in science because I am doing coding and robotics at school.

Chiko interviewed a panel of women scientists that are part of the FSNet-Africa network – namely, Prof. Ibok Oduro (FSNet-Africa mentor) from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, Prof. Claire Quinn (FSNet-Africa Co-Principal Investigator and mentor) from the University of Leeds in the UK, and Dr Bridget Bwalya (FSNet-Africa fellow) from the University of Zambia in Zambia.

Prior to the live interview, young girls were given the opportunity to record on audio and submit their questions about food and/or women in science. Questions were received from girls as young as 5 years old. Some highlights from the session:

What does a scientist do?

Bridget: A scientist does a lot of things, but most of them have to do with a lot of discovery. So one needs to be inquisitive and ask questions about how things work and how to make things better. We find a lot of scientists working in different fields, but all of them are about exploring, inquiring, understanding the world, and bringing technology that makes the world better.  Scientists also share results from their research with other people so that they can also learn and make use of it.

Do you have to be really smart to become a scientist or can anyone become a scientist?

Ibok: Everyone has the potential to become a scientist. Remember how we define it? Anyone who can ask questions – i.e., what, why, who, and how? If you have that, then you are ready to advance knowledge. All you need is passion, an inquisitive mind, and readiness to systematically work on it, in the quest to find solutions so that the society will benefit from your work.

What is the relationship between food and science and why should time be taken study food and science?

Claire: Science has a huge influence on the food we eat and scientists work in every part of the food chain – from farm to fork. This means that right from where our food is grown up to when the food is on our plate. For example, we have scientists that work in robotics that help create machinery that processes our food. We also have nutritionists that develop our food products. So you can see that science is everywhere, in relation to our food.

Audience members who tuned into the live chat session highlighted how the episode enlightened them regarding the importance of spreading awareness about STEM fields and encouraging and inspiring girls to pursue careers in science.

Dr Inocencia John, an FSNet-Africa fellow, shared that “listening in to the panel made me think that, as parents, we have a role to play – especially for our young scientists. It is our duty to take them through a path that can actually create that interest. The session has given me the direction of how to raise kids in a more scientific way!”

 The session also spurred other listeners to inspire young girls in their communities to pursue a career in the sciences. Dr Antoinette Anim-Jnr, an FSNet-Africa fellow from KNUST, said: “Hearing Chiko speak today has encouraged me further to talk to young girls. I now understand that this generation gets exposed to things at an earlier age, so let’s talk to them more about science. 

One of the mothers of one of the girls that submitted a question for the session had this to say: “I could relate to the experience of one of the panellists who narrated how she struggled with her maths. Unfortunately, l didn’t have the right type of guidance to get me to think a little more broadly and where l could go. I have a little girl who is also interested in finding new ways to incorporate a healthier lifestyle. It would be great to have these types of opportunities for girls to engage with scientists, at school or other platforms. Academia is tough, but listening to you guys, it might have been easier if l had the necessary mentorship.

The panellists encouraged the girls in the audience – and particularly those who had submitted questions – to maintain their curiosity, not be afraid to ask questions, grab opportunities, and explore different subjects – even those traditionally seen as very challenging or more suited to boys. The audience members who tuned into the live chat session highlighted how the episode enlightened them regarding the importance of spreading awareness about STEM fields and encouraging girls to pursue careers in science.

As the live chat show is only an hour long, panellists could not respond to all the girls’ pre-recorded questions. FSNet-Africa took to social media to share the unanswered questions and thereby ensure that each girl who participated got the answers they were looking for. Below is an example of a question that was answered on Twitter:

A number of girls from Chiko’s school were also positively impacted by this interview, saying that they were inspired and encouraged to pursue careers in the science field due to the passion expressed by the panellists. The school acknowledged and celebrated this achievement from one of their own young scientists and stated: “International day of Women and Girls in Science reminds us to think about the next generation of scientists and how we get them to appreciate science.”

The interview emphasised the important role that women scientists need to play in inspiring young girls to pursue careers in science.

To listen to the original In Conversation with FSNet-Africa interview, click here