Dr. Adey Desta joined university in 1996 as a doubtful science student, almost certain she would choke in a field that attracted very, very few women. The unassuming Professor of Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology in the Department of Microbial, Cellular and Molecular Biology at Addis Ababa University talks about the experience almost as if it was a harrowing dream.

For when she finally graduated, with much relief, a bigger horror awaited her.

“I had said to myself, ‘Let me settle here, just look for jobs.’ But I could not find the jobs I wanted. So now I had to consider doing a Master’s degree, and I was not sure I would succeed there,” she says.

When speaking on an ISAAA AfriCenter Webinar organised on March, Friday, 8 for the International Women’s Day 2024 and themed “What if we invested in Women for Science?” she makes her postgraduate journey sound rather easy, but it has been anything but, majorly because of her gender.

She took three years to complete her Master’s, one more than usual. She spent eight grueling months in the field in a remote place in Ethiopia collecting data for her dissertation, and it was so tough her professors were actually thrilled. She received her first born when she was struggling to complete her PhD, which she did in 2014.

Hers is not an isolated case.

Dr. Sylvia Mutinda, a Research Scientist at Kenyatta University, speaks about her unique relationship with science from a tender age. Her father, a science teacher, patiently answered all her questions, and when she enrolled for a BSc in Education Science at Chuka University, she started considering the possibility of pursuing Master’s in biotechnology.

Consequently, she later enrolled at The Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in plant biotechnology.

Throughout her science journey, all the way to her PhD where she has studied the parasitic plant Striga, she has had a number of mentors, none of whom was a woman.

“For that reason, I have taken it upon myself to mentor as many younger science students as I can, men and women. As a teacher, there is fulfilment in passing knowledge to students who want to learn,” she says.

Catherine Chaweza, the Chief Information, Education and Communications Officer at The National Commission for Science and Technology in Malawi, says that women face a plethora of problems in patriarchal societies, and for those in science, these issues get amplified.

Long-running beliefs that women should struggle in science disciplines have also dented their chances for success.

“This is entrenched in such a way that even when a girl is good (in science), it is treated as something special; for boys this is not news at all. These things make the girl believe she cannot make it in science. Some have broken through, and with family support, some survive. But even when the women succeed, why do we label them as the female scientists- doctor, engineer, architect? We are still galvanising those beliefs that women should not do science,” she says.

Further, she says that women in science have not come out to talk about their work, suppressing their importance therefore, and this visibility has affected their chances of making notable progress.

“In Malawi, the scientists we get to hear about are men. I have referred many scientists to the media, and very few of these have been women. The media will think about men first when they think of scientists; it is who they are used to seeing,” she says.

Dr. Adey calls for women empowerment, citing women as “very observant” and able to, therefore, help scientists understand phenomena they are familiar with in their societies.

“We should be agile, empathetic and detail-oriented while not losing sight of the bigger picture,” she says. “We are supremely important to the progress of science and of society.”

She lauds her mentors, the few ladies who were thriving in science academia when she was a student, and who motivated her to reach for her goals. She is currently undertaking a project where, with her students, she is producing fertiliser from human urine.

“This is my contribution to society,” she says.

According to Ms Chaweza, the National Commission of Science of Malawi, the science granting council, is exploring the possibility of having more women-led organisations seeking, and receiving, funding under the gender, equality and inclusion principle.

Dr. Mutinda does not agree with women playing second fiddle to men, and with questions always being asked when women make progress in science. She feels women need to assert themselves more and to claim their place amid all the societal pressures.

“The greatest tool of a woman is her voice. Women are shakers and groundbreakers. We are where we are because some women paid the price,” she says.

Dr. Margaret Karembu, Director at ISAAA AfriCenter and Chair of The Africa Science Dialogue, commends the efforts of women scientists who have fought to carve a path for others in science.

“The role of women in science cannot be overemphasized. Women, generally, play an important role in our society: they contribute to food security, and they ensure good nutrition for their families, and this contributes to peace,” she says.

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