Editor’s note: Introducing ‘East African Women in Science’

Saturday March 31 2012

Women in science: The sisterhood equation

Women in science: The sisterhood equation  

By NICK WACHIRA, Managing Editor

Stephen King, the celebrated American author of science, horror and fantasy fiction tells a revealing story in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Mr King writes that every time he would complete a big fiction project, he would be overflowing with so much creative juice that he just had the urge to start on his next book.

This time, he would do a novella. That is how some of his memorable short works like The Apt Pupil and Shawshank Redemption came to be.

Last year in August, The EastAfrican published what we called the “Sisterhood Project,” a compilation of profiles of some of the region’s leading women in politics, business, conservation and technology among other fields.

As we researched the “Sisterhood,” it occurred to us that we were having particular difficulty identifying women who were doing cutting edge research in the sciences and medicine.

This is because no one writes about them, and career success in our society is defined by the rat race of the corporate world and earning big money.


I remember having animated conversations with our correspondent Tabitha Mwangi, a PhD who had specialised in malaria research before going in for journalism; with writer Christine Mungai, who worked on the “Sisterhood Project” and with reporter Sara Ooko about why there was such a lack of information on women in science and how career success in that field could be measured.

When we framed the question in terms of the outcomes such as number of lives saved, food security and so on, some interesting people started emerging.

The EastAfrican team, which included reporters Halima Abdallah in Uganda and Rose Mirondo in Tanzania, follows up on the “Sisterhood Project” with the “East African Women in Science Series.”

In this issue, we profile a selection of East African women scientists who are developing new drugs to combat a wide range of devastating diseases, pioneering new standards of treatment to save lives, and using the latest technology to improve the region’s food security.

Women are still the minority in scientific research, even after years of campaigns to get girls to take up science subjects; according to the Inter University Council for East Africa, in 2009 girls made up just 27 per cent of science and technology students in Rwanda; and 24 per cent in Tanzania.

Uganda and Kenya were even lower — 18 and 17 per cent respectively.

Even when they graduate, women are more likely than men to drop out of science careers altogether.

In the employment arena, especially in science and technology, it is widely assumed that women are less capable, less competitive, or less productive than men, resulting in a scarcity of women in these fields.

A 2009 study in Rwanda established that only 30 per cent of female graduates in science, mathematics and technology were actually employed in science and technology departments.

Those in non-science and technology departments were distributed in administration (43.3 per cent), finance (33.4 per cent) and public relations (22 per cent) and others (1.4 per cent), such as library.

The female proportion of academic staff in science and technology in East Africa ranges from two to seven per cent.

Cultural pressures and women’s unequal childcare and family responsibilities account for some of these disparities, resulting in a cumulative disadvantage for female employees in science, mathematics and technology.

But the women we profile here have persevered in a male-dominated field, managing to balance the demanding life of a scientist with family life, succeeding in disciplines that are tough even for men, and sometimes getting international accolades for it.

We profile a wide range of women whose achievements often do not get much attention, but whose work is helping children get better treatment in hospitals, assisting farmers to get better value for their produce, and combating both familiar and unusual diseases.

These women are role models for girls in school, who may be struggling with the decision of whether, to paraphrase Robert Frost, to travel the familiar road of public relations, advertising and finance — fields where women dominate and career success is much easier — or to take the road less travelled by, as these women have done.

We are also delighted that we publish this project in the week that Peggoty Mutai, a 32-year-old Kenyan, was nominated for this year’s L’Oréal-Unesco Women in Science award for her work on parasitic worms, which are largely neglected and confined to the poor but have debilitating effects on children’s cognitive function, performance in school and immunity to other diseases.

Lastly, If you know a woman who is working on a major scientific project that we should tell our readers about, please e-mail me at [email protected]

The Women

DR MARINA ALOYCE NJELEKELA: Fighting breast and cervical cancer

DR NARRIMAN S. JIDDAWI: Saving the reef with ‘mariculture’ ponds

DR JANE ACHAN: The scientist who wanted to be a teller

Rev DR FLORENCE ISABIRYE MURANGA: Branded matooke for all

DR GLADYS KALEMA-ZIKUSOKA: The minder of gorilla health

DR FLORA ISMAIL TIBAZARWA: Local solutions to crop pests, diseases

DR JANE CHUMA: The health economist who focuses on the poor

DR JULIE MAKANI: Feeling the pain of sickle cell anaemia

DR LUSIKE WASILWA: ‘Empower women farmers, feed society’

PEGGOTY MUTAI: Drugs; You have to kiss many frogs to find a prince

DR EMELDA OKIRO: Pioneer of the saliva test

DR AJANGALE NELLY ISYAGI-LEVINE: The catfish entrepreneur

DR JOLLY KABIRIZI: She helps Uganda farmers embrace new technology

DR GRACE IRIMU: Champion of sick children

DR MARGARET OKOMO-ADHIAMBO: The flu virus hunter

DR BRENDA OKECH: Juggling malaria vaccine trials and motherhood

DR EUNICE NDUATI: How an accidental visit to a lab started a science career