Embrace Equity for International Women day

The 2016 film Hidden Figures told the story of three African American women who played a crucial – but largely unseen – role in America’s race to put a man in space.

In doing so, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson joined an elite group of pioneering women, who have shaped and changed our understanding of the scientific world forever.

The theme of International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023 is #EmbraceEquity, and it highlights the fact that while we’ve made some progress, we still have a long way to go, to create a fairer, more equitable society.

As part of our IWD celebrations, Unizima caught up with a few women who are rocking the life-sciences world, despite the obstacles in their way.

Olivia Koburongo is the co-founder and CEO of MamaOpe Medicals Ltd, a digital health startup company based in Kampala, Uganda. In a bid to reduce child mortality rates in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, Olivia and her team have developed a non-invasive, acute respiratory infection diagnostic aid, to facilitate the timely detection and treatment of pneumonia. On the way to establishing her organization, she says, “I was defying social expectations, and access to funding was a challenge”.

Dr. Cecilia Ndinda Wanjala concurs: “Unfortunately, in many aspects of my career, there were times where I was reminded that I am a woman, whether it was about salary, or opportunities in biomanufacturing, especially in a developing country”. Cecilia is a Commercial Management Specialist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and has been seconded to the Kenya Biovax Institute, where they aspire to become the leading manufacturer of biopharmaceuticals in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cecilia has a keen interest in finding a cure for dengue fever, and her mission is to set up a local biomedical manufacturing facility. “If we establish these facilities and research centres in Africa, women won’t have to go abroad to pursue these career paths,” she says.

The paucity of women leaders and role models, particularly in STEM subjects, has often been highlighted as a major barrier. Wambui Gachiengo Nyabero is the Chief Technical Officer at Villgro Africa, which provides strategic and technical leadership for an incubation programme for healthcare innovation startups in Africa. “As an engineer, it was difficult to find opportunities and a leader or mentor to rely on. I now understand how crucial these are, as I had times of self-doubt where I wondered if I had what it took to be a change maker.”

Research published by the Brookings Institution last year, shows that only 18-31 percent of science researchers are women in sub-Saharan Africa. The authors also suggest that role models are critical for engaging girls between the ages of 8-16, to catalyze their interest in STEM subjects.

Wambui agrees: “It really has to start with empowering very young girls so they believe they are capable of excelling in STEM subjects. There is a need for curriculum changes that speak to girls and young women, and programmes that get girls excited about digging really deep into technology. Those of us who have been in careers in science and technology MUST reach back and pull a few young women up with us.”

In terms of this year’s IWD theme, Cecilia believes that, “Giving equal opportunities to every person irrespective of gender, creed or race, is what equity is all about”. Wambui suggests that we need to, “Embrace the reality that we are stronger when we have communities and workplaces that support individuals with what they need to be successful. By providing these resources to each individual, society benefits.”

Along with mentoring and training targeted specifically at women, grit and resilience have been the bedrock of their success, although Olivia asks: “Can we teach them to be a bit bold, to negotiate better, and to take more risks?”

“Persist,” says Wambui. "I would start with inspiration and mentorship – look in unlikely places to find them! Do not be afraid to reach out for opportunities even when they seem beyond you. Do not hesitate to ask for help; the worst that can happen is that you hear ‘no’ a few times. Make friends with people with similar goals and spend time with people you consider smarter than yourself!”

Olivia adds, “Value yourself, and stay focused on your goals. Your dream is valid.”