Promoting women in science, math, technology and engineering

| July 6, 2019 | 0 Comments
Purity Ngina, centre, speaks at the African Women Diplomatic Forum's seminar that celebrated African and Canadian women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

Purity Ngina, centre, speaks at the African Women Diplomatic Forum’s seminar that celebrated African and Canadian women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

In her own words, Rita Orji describes her upbringing: “I was born in a small village in Eastern Nigeria called Enugu to parents who had no education. I had four sisters and four brothers. My parents did not have money to pay my school fees. After I completed primary education and scored very high marks, my sister found me a job as a sales girl in a petrol station. However, members of the community saved me from this job by raising enough money for my secondary school education and later my university. After high school, I [enrolled] in a computer science program at university. I had never seen or used a computer in my life, but I liked mathematics and I liked to innovate and learn new things. Through trial and error and studying on the internet, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree.” Orji is now an assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s faculty of computer science. She was named one of Canada’s Top 150 Canadian Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in 2017 and was one of the “Top 50 Young Most Influential Best Brains” in Enugu State, Nigeria, in 2017.
Purity Ngina, meanwhile, is a lecturer and motivational speaker at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya. But it was a tough climb to get to where she is. She was born and raised in Mbiriri, a village in the foothills of Mount Kenya in Nyeri County to a single mother who was a squatter and a casual labourer. Life was difficult. In primary school, her grades weren’t exceptional — she scored 235 out of a possible 500 in her first attempt at the Kenya Certificate of Primary Examination (KCPE) and she repeated Grade 8 a year later [2003] and scored 369. In high school, she sat for her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Examination (KCSE) in 2007 and scored a mean grade of B+. She went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree with first-class honours and was awarded a scholarship for her graduate studies.
“I did not in my wildest dreams imagine that one day I would be Kenya’s youngest PhD in biomathematics at 28 years,” Ngina said.

South African High Commissioner Sibongiseni Yvonne Dlamini-Mntambo congratulates Rita Orji on her successes. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

South African High Commissioner Sibongiseni Yvonne Dlamini-Mntambo congratulates Rita Orji on her successes. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

Ngina and Orji shared their stories along with many others at a gathering of African and Canadian women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) who gathered in Ottawa for a one-day roundtable and seminar organized by the African Women Diplomatic Forum (AWDF). AWDF was formed in 2011 by a group of female African ambassadors, high commissioners and deputy heads of mission based in Ottawa. Its goal was to bring together female diplomats in informal ways for moral, social and professional support during their tour of duty in Canada. The Forum works with various stakeholders to promote the women’s agenda in diplomatic service. Current members include Senegal, Rwanda, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Morocco and South Africa.
The seminar, whose theme was “Women in STEM in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities,” was organized to celebrate the accomplishments of African female scientists in STEM. There was also a slideshow presentation that showcased profiles of more than 60 female scientists from 17 African countries.
Among the panellists were: Soumaya Yacout, professor of industrial engineering at Ecole Polytechnique Montreal and founder, President and CEO of the data-mining company, DEXIN Inc.; Wanja Gitari, associate professor of science education at the University of Toronto; Safaa Fouda, former deputy director general at CANMET Energy Technology Centre, Department of Natural Resources Canada; Vern Singhroy, chief scientist, Canada Centre for Remote Sensing; Orji, who is an assistant professor of computer science at Dalhousie University; Midia Shikh Hassan, manager of MakerLaunch, a startup growth hub at the University of Ottawa. From Africa, there was Rajaa Cherkaoui, professor of nuclear physics at Hassan II Academy of Science and Technology in Morocco and a Laureate L’Oréal-UNESCO “Women in Science” in 2015; Amina Abubakar, senior scientist at the Aga Khan Foundation Network; and Ngina, who is a lecturer at Strathmore University in Kenya. There were also several young female scientists pursuing graduate studies in African and Canadian universities.
The seminar was organized in two parts. The morning session took place in partnership with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and was a roundtable discussion that brought together African and Canadian female scientists. It provided a platform for them to share and exchange knowledge and ideas on how to enhance the participation of women in STEM. IDRC president Jean Lebel, in his remarks, noted that there is a need to address the “leaky pipeline” of women in STEM in Africa and all over the world. The subsequent discussion revealed that women are facing many of the same barriers in Canada as they are across Africa. Some of the challenges identified included a big gender gap in STEM in Canada and across Africa, which leads to women feeling isolated and missing out on research opportunities due to informal conversations that take place among male researchers; lack of mentorship opportunities for women; a tendency on the part of women to gravitate toward sciences where they can see societal impact; the pressures of having children before it’s too late; a lack of funding for women in STEM and a lack of data available in Africa to monitor and address the gender gap in STEM.
Despite these challenges, participants were also eager to share best practices from their respective countries. From Canada, the discussion revealed a number of interventions have been put in place to encourage women in STEM. These include parental leave for women and men, dedicated research chairs for women and the requirement for researchers to apply for grants as a team that includes women. In Rwanda, dedicated scholarships for women to attend university are in place. In Egypt, the introduction of gender equality legislation led to higher numbers of women in engineering.
To tackle some of these key challenges, participants proposed several solutions and actions. They said those in the sector need to ensure that funding is available to support female scientists and provide seed funding for entrepreneurship. They suggested funding programs that will push the younger generation to connect innovation to creativity. This includes moving from STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics). They also suggested diverse representation in classrooms, political buy-in and legal frameworks that promote and uphold gender equality in STEM. They said men must be engaged in dialogues and work together as allies to address the gender gap. Finally, they identified a need to link women to one another to foster collaboration.
During this roundtable discussion, experienced and newer scientists in STEM came together to talk about bringing more women into STEM to make a change in society. The output from the roundtable was the proposal to establish the Africa-Canada Women Scientists Network.
Diane Jacovella, Canada’s deputy minister of International Development, delivered a keynote address titled “Women in Science: Busting Myths and Misconceptions” and in a video message, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, a former astronaut and a supporter of women in STEM, offered a powerful message. She said, “science is a great unifying platform [in which] we search, explore and find solutions to common problems.”
Next, a high-level panel discussion, organized in partnership with the Aga Khan Development Network, took place. Panellist Rajaa Cherkaoui shared statistics from Africa, showing that the numbers of women in STEM are increasing, albeit slowly. Orji identified three factors that affect women’s participation in STEM, namely family background, community support and opportunity provided by organizations. She encouraged women to “raise up their hands” in order to be noticed and to support each other.
The second panel discussed strategies to improve the situation of female scientists in STEM, including funding opportunities. Some of the strategies identified by the panellists included: positive discrimination, especially in funding for women in STEM; flexible working environments to enable women to combine their personal and professional roles, especially those who would like to have families; mentorship programs targeting girls in high schools, to increase the pool of women enrolling in STEM in colleges and universities; and an effort to identify champions of STEM.
The seminar ended on a high note with remarks from Rwandan chargé d’affaires Shakila Umutoni, who is also vice-president of AWDF. She observed that for “Africa to achieve sustainable development, it is imperative to eliminate gender stereotypes in STEM.” Another seminar will be organized in Africa to bring together African and Canadian women in STEM to make the Africa-Canada Women Scientists Network a reality.

Jane Kerubo is the deputy head of mission at the Kenyan High Commission.

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Jane Kerubo is the deputy head of mission at the Kenyan High Commission.

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