How can we concretely engage girls in science-related fields of studies in Africa? Dr. Elsa Zekeng gives her point of view

Next Einstein Forum: In 2016, the European Union selected you as Young Leader in recognition to your contribution in the field of science, notably in Africa. Could you tell us more about this and how you passed the so-called “glass ceiling”?

Elsa Zekeng: At the time of my selection I was doing my PhD in Infectious Diseases and Global Health at the University of Liverpool and was Co-Founder of an organization called the “Northwest Biotech Initiative”. The initiative aimed to equip scientists with skills and tools essential for career paths outside academia for example if they wanted to commercialize their research or go into industry or consulting. As well, and I suppose more interestingly, in 2015, during the biggest Ebola outbreak in West Africa, I deployed to Guinea with the World Health Organization (WHO). I spent six weeks at an Ebola Treatment Centre in Coyah testing patient and contacts’ samples for Malaria and Ebola. This was to support contact tracing and slow down the spread of the Ebola outbreak. I later received the ‘Ebola medal for service in West Africa’ from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, II from England.

I have been very fortunate, and have achieved a lot but I wouldn’t say I have passed the “glass-ceiling” as I still have a lot to achieve. Nonetheless, I attribute these achievements to several factors. My father consciously exposed me to a range of experiences from a very young age. He was and still is an absolute advocate on the importance of education and being able to achieve anything I set my mind to. My PhD supervisor played a role in this as he understood my goals, saw my potential and gave me the opportunity. Finally, the community of dedicated women in science from whom I have drawn strength at various points knowingly and unknowingly. I am aware I am very fortunate to have been able to pursue these opportunities and have a relentless support system.

What is the current landscape of gender equality in science, technology and innovation (STI) fields on the continent?

E.Z.: According the Lancet journal, when considering Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), 53% of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates and 43% of PhD graduates are women. However, only 28% of researchers are women in these fields and only 30% of women in higher education move into STEM-related roles. In Sub Saharan Africa, only 30% of researchers in all subject areas are women. Taking Cameroon as an example, in 2017, 20% of men enrolled in tertiary education whilst only 15% of women enrolled. Further, only 22% of Cameroonian researchers are female academics while 7% of female academics rank as full professor. An in-depth analysis showed that female scientists constituted lower ranks of the workforce with less responsibility, decision making and leadership opportunities.

What are the reasons that explain women’s underrepresentation in science in Sub-Saharan Africa?

E.Z.: I believe there are a multitude of reasons that explain women’s underrepresentation in science in Sub-Saharan Africa but I would like to focus on two specifically. The first is access and encouragement into STEM subjects at a young age. I believe culturally and socially, girls should not only have access to education in STEM subjects but also be encouraged to pursue these careers. STEM fields are already male dominated and may be intimidating for any young female with an interest in this. Girls should be encouraged to embrace the trial and error approach that science and technology demands. Therefore, building confidence and resilience is absolutely key.

An interesting observation was made when I was speaking on a panel at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Girls who attended all-girl schools at some point in their education attained higher levels in STEM fields. This was interesting to me as I went to an all-girl school for 7 years (Secondary school to High School). So, I thought and continuously think about it, could this be because we felt safer to keep trying in our formative years? That would be an interesting piece of research to carry out.

The second one is related to systemic and institutional gender biases (conscious and unconscious). We all have an unconscious bias. There are several types of these biases which infiltrate the world of work and affect how we interact and engage with people different from us. For example; “affinity bias” is where we gravitate to people like ourselves in appearance, beliefs and background. This is frequently seen in the recruitment processes. As stated above, STEM fields are generally male dominated. This leaves women interested in pursuing STEM careers at the mercy of biased policies, recruitment practices, progression opportunities, workplace culture and so much more. This is absolutely key as we could have a talent pipeline of promising, hardworking women with a desire to pursue careers in STEM. However, if met with obstacles that are beyond their control, such as a non-inclusive work environment, limited opportunities for progression, limited mentorship opportunities consistently, this would understandably frustrate even the brightest and most hardworking person.

How can we concretely engage girls in science-related fields of studies and careers in Africa? How can they overcome the barriers?

E.Z.: As mentioned above, engage with girls and encourage them into science-related fields from a very young age. Through after school activities, events that allow girls to engage with and talk to women in science at various career levels, building online safe spaces and community groups to continue this conversation. More importantly, making them aware of various job opportunities following science -related studies. It is very important to inform and educate girls and our society on job opportunities upon completion.

When families, friends and well-wishers are informed on the opportunities available, the girls build a safe support group that continuously encourage them to pursue this career. The public perception is frequently limited to think that following education in STEM subjects, the only career options are “medical doctor” or “engineering”. This is simply not the case as there so many more career paths available. Our governments and leaders should get more involved and invest in science and technology related careers whilst transmitting this information to girls from a young age and their families and well-wishers. This instills trust and a sense of direction and purpose to push on when the going gets tough.

How innovation can develop an environment in which more of girls and women engage in STI studies on the continent?

E.Z.: Technology decentralizes the process of learning and upskilling. It provides community groups the technical as well as the emotional support to grow and thrive in these spaces at an individual pace without external pressures or fears. It allows for collaboration and learning beyond geographical borders. It is crucial to build an ecosystem that supports the development of science and technology. We should also build technology that combats biases. I am a Co-Founder of a start-up called Jobseekrs. Jobseekrs mitigates unconscious bias at the sourcing and screening stage of recruitment. Jobseekrs is an AI powered interactive job site that matches candidates to job opportunities on two key factors, namely their competency to the job role and their culture-alignment with a company. Our machine learning algorithm combines the results from these two factors into a percentage fit score for each candidate. It presents these candidates to the employer anonymously only showing the percentage fit score for initial vetting; not their name, gender or any other thing that may cause a form of bias. Our mission is to give everyone an equal chance. This is the power of technology when used globally, to address systemic obstacles that have at one time, disadvantaged a particular set of people. Building more technology that combats inequalities will definitely increase and engage more girls and women in Science and Technology. It is worth noting that access to technology is still a privilege that needs to be further decentralised. Ensuring that everyone has unlimited access to technology at an affordable cost is essential to fully reap all the benefits of technology.

According to various experts, the promotion of local African languages is a key element to reduce the inequality access to new technologies on the continent. Do you agree? Why?

E.Z.: When considering barriers to entry for anything be it technology or even a new subject at school, language is first and foremost a priority. Ensuring that information and key concepts are shared in a way that is accessible and understood to all is absolutely fundamental. This is also applicable to accessing new technology. We have to ensure it is in a language that is understandable to all to use it, understand it and furthermore build and create it.