'Women In Science,' At the 8th National Science and Technology Exhibition Week

From (L) to (R): Prof. Abukutsa-Onyango, Dr. Njuki, Dr. Gitau, Ms. Mosomtai, Dr. Mutiso

From (L) to (R): Prof. Abukutsa-Onyango, Dr. Njuki, Dr. Gitau, Ms. Mosomtai, Dr. Mutiso

Author: Naliaka Odera

This year, the Mawazo Institute was one of the organizing partners of the 8th National Science and Technology Exhibition Week. An event helmed by National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) in partnership with Young Scientists Kenya. As part of the week’s events, CEO, Dr. Rose M. Mutiso was asked to host a panel discussion under the sub-theme of, “Women in Science” that would dialogue on breaking gender barriers in Research, Technology, and Innovation (RST&I). The panelists, selected by Mawazo, were: Prof. Mary Abukutsa-Onyango (Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research Production and Extension at JKUAT), Dr. Jemimah Njuki (Senior Program Officer at Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC)), Dr. Shikoh Gitau (Head of Products at Alpha, Safaricom Limited), and Gladys Mosomtai, (PhD Candidate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and Researcher at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe)).

Dr. Rose began the session by presenting an overview of the current environment for women pursuing PhDs and working within the fields of RST&I. She shared alarming findings from Mawazo’s own studies, including that 80% of women surveyed by Mawazo (1) who are pursuing doctorate studies were self funding their research. This often means splitting time, energy and focus between full time jobs and other means of income, and can thus lengthen the period of time it takes to complete a PhD. Dr. Rose also pointed out that when support is given to young women, the emphasis is placed on training skills and not research implementation. Ultimately, she concluded that most actors in the field of graduate studies are not supporting women comprehensively. 

To open the discussion, Dr. Rose began by asking Dr. Jemimah Njuki, an expert on gender and agriculture, to define women’s current role in RST&I—and whether there is currently enough focus on research beyond STEM. In her response, Dr. Jemimah stressed the importance of holistic research within the biophysical sciences that includes studies of the social world. This, she said, could help drive better solutions to common challenges we are facing. 

 “Our research is more impactful when it includes all members of the society that it impacts,” Dr. Jemimah told the audience. 

Shifting gears, Professor Mary Abukutsa- Onyango, was asked about her opinion on men’s responsibilities in addressing gender imbalance in places of leadership within academia. The solution she suggested was quite simple. “Stop looking at women as women inside the boardroom,” she addressed the men in the room pointedly. “Treat me the way you would treat any other professional.” 

When Dr. Shikoh Gitau talked about her own experiences as a woman in academia versus working in the tech industry, she explained that she had encountered fewer obstacles in academia. There were more loop holes, she said, where she could hide in plain sight as a woman. For example, there were opportunities, especially when she was studying abroad, to submit her work with just her name. A name that does not denote a gender outside of Kenya. Within the tech industry, Dr. Shikoh said she found more resistance. There, she realized she was battling societal barriers around gender stereotyping much more frequently. 

As panelists referenced their many years of experience working within their fields, and the challenges and opportunities they had found, PhD student, Gladys Mosomtai weighed in with her perspective on gender imbalance in academia. She explained that while her experiences as a woman in academia had been positive and she was lucky to have been mentored by forward thinking male professors, she knew this was not the case for all of her female peers. As such, Gladys shared with the room, she was committed to being a role model to young girls interested in the sciences, or pursuing graduate studies.  Beyond that, she declared that the need to link research beyond academic journals and into the real world of industry is a central motivator for her and her peers. Themes around mentorship and connecting academic research with development teams outside of the university resurfaced throughout the session, showing where panelists concerns and hopes lay. As Dr. Shikoh responded to a question asking what advice she would give to younger women in RST&I, she reminded them that being a minority can be a source of strength. “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” she explained, “Let it be your new normal.” 

Looking forward, the panelists were hopeful that women’s participation in RST&I would not only continue to grow, but would also find the necessary support it needed; a change they were committed to being part of. As Professor Mary insisted, despite limited funding, universities, specifically JKUAT, continue to work hard to both provide opportunities for university students to see their projects realized (with collaborations and initiatives like Tech Expo), while still addressing gender imbalance in academia in larger conversations and strategies. Dr. Jemimah emphasized that, “women deserve to live meaningful lives” and therefore there are “fundamental shifts that [Kenyan] society needs to make,” underscoring the fact that ensuring gender equality is about systemic change, and is a societal wide undertaking involving both men, women, and institutions, including those of higher education.

Ultimately, the stark statistics on the low representation of women in RST&I and dismal completion rates for PhDs in the country can be viewed as a challenge to anyone with an interest in achieving gender parity or driving innovation in Kenya. Dr. Rose concluded the session by emphasizing that it is only when all parties work together—private and public, universities and industry, individual and organizational—that meaningful change can take place. 

(1) To find out more about what Mawazo has learned about the challenges facing African women in academia and research, you can read our organizational overview here.