The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize was a Kenyan scholar named Wangari Maathai. She was an activist, environmentalist, author, and professor. She wrote about topics like environmental sustainability, economic empowerment, and human rights. As a leader and scholar, Professor Maathai served in numerous councils and organizations. She even developed some of her environmental ideas into a grassroots organization called the Green Belt Movement, which focuses on poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.
Wangari Maathai was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn her doctorate degree. And when she became the chair of the department of veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, she was the first woman in those positions too.
Maathai once wrote, “African women, in general, need to know that it’s okay for them to be the way they are — to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.”
Women In Science — A Minority
By all accounts, Maathai was an exceptional woman. She rose to leadership in her field and in her country. She is a pioneer. But according to data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, even in the year 2019, fewer than 30% of the world’s researchers in science, technology, and innovation are women.
Linda Nochlin’s essay examining the question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” provides a discussion that I think may expand to answer my question, “Why Are There So Few Great Women Scientists?”
Nochlin writes, “Things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them.” In other words, the problem in the arts and in science is from the same root cause. The systems in place do not support women who want to pursue careers in historically male-dominated fields. Those are dominated by men because of social institutions and stereotypes against women.
To illustrate this, I want to share a story of two aspiring female scientists in Kenya.
Like Wangari Maathai, Arbe Adano and Qabale Salesa are also women who are part of Food for the Hungry’s (FH) work in Kenya. They are 22 and 15 years old, respectively, and they both want to be doctors someday. But they live in impoverished communities. They do not have access to many material resources. Plus, they are women. Numerous obstacles prevent women in their northern Kenya community from even finishing school. Forget continuing on to university.
As young women, Arbe and Qabale used to miss school for several days each month. Their families couldn’t afford to buy sanitary pads. They didn’t have the hygiene items that would allow them to attend school during their menstrual periods every month. Sometimes, they would create makeshift alternatives that resulted in pain or sickness. Qabale told her family, “Mum would have to buy me cloth or papers, and sometimes forego buying food for the family in order to afford it.”
You can imagine why this would cause many young women to fall behind in school or even to drop out altogether.
Women are underrepresented in fields like art or science. But the fault, Nochlin says, “lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.” In fact, Nochlin continues, we should not wonder where all of the great female artists or scientists of color are. Instead, we should marvel at the miracle. Given the “overwhelming odds,” it’s amazing how many women and people of color have achieved so much excellence in areas such as science, politics, and the arts despite how systems discourage it in so many ways.
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Arbe and Qabale shared with FH staff member Irene that their lives have improved. Now, every month at school, they receive a girls’ hygiene kit that includes underwear and sanitary pads. They receive lessons to learn about their own health and hygiene, and to feel empowered to finish their education. Arbe says, “We are able to concentrate in school without feeling embarrassed. My hope and dream is to work to support my parents. I want to be a medical doctor.” Qabale says, “I can run and I can go to school without missing any days. I am free.”
Their story is a small-scale example of female empowerment. But reaching gender equality in science and all other fields requires bigger-level change. Gender equality and innovation in science are essential to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.
There continues to be an effort to inspire and engage women and girls in science. But social, political, economic, and educational institutions continue preventing women from achieving leadership. This is especially true in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. February 11 is the United Nation’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Consider how you can “encourage and support girls and women to achieve their full potential as scientific researchers and innovators.”
How You Can Help
More articles you may be interested in:
Global Youth and the Rise of Education: A Reflection for Malala Day
Retrieving Water is the Work of the World’s Remarkable Women
The Future is Female: Behind the Scenes of Your 2019 Artist’s Edition Calendar