Women in science: Africa needs more role models

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There is inadequate encouragement of girls to pursue math and science in school. (Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank)

UNESCO estimates that barely 30 percent of Africa’s women pursue research in science and engineering fields. I am inspired by one of them – a woman who is among the few female PhDs in the West African nation of Togo, and is helping more girls in her country enroll into science and technology fields.

Meet Dr. Amivi Kafui Gassou Tété-Bénissan, PhD researcher in pharmaceutical and biological sciences and member of the Togolese Women for the Promotion of Science and Technology, an association of female professors, engineers, high school science teachers and doctoral students, who mentor and nurture the next generation of a successful young women.

She also happens to be one of Togo’s few female science faculty members. Gassou Tété-Bénissan teaches cell biology and biochemistry at the country’s largest university, University of Lomé. She wants to use her research to enhance her understanding of the Togolese population’s biological profile as it relates to the environment, and use that understanding to improve living conditions.
 

Growing up in rural Togo and one of seven children, Gassou Tété-Bénissan was always intrigued by nature and the various forms of life around her. Her father, an agricultural engineer, and mother, a school teacher, encouraged her curiosity. They made sure that their daughter had the same educational opportunities as their sons. In the end, no one was surprised when she chose to study natural sciences in college.
 
“I chose to pursue an academic career not just to satiate my own passion for science, but also to share it with upcoming generations.”
 
Gassou Tété-Bénissan’s achievements are not just an anomaly in her own country. According to the 2015 UNESCO science report, Togo has barely six female researchers per every million inhabitants.
 
I believe there is a general consensus in that Africa’s capacity to achieve its ambitious socio-economic goals depends on an ability to innovate using science and technology. Women’s equal participation is integral to achieving these goals, but African women’s contribution in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) remains low. One major factor behind this is inadequate encouragement of girls to pursue math and science at an early school-going age.

Overcoming all obstacles
 
Due to scarce academic opportunities for higher education at home, Gassou Tété-Bénissan obtained her bachelor’s in natural sciences and mathematics at the Académie du Maine in Le Mans, France. After studying cell and molecular biology at Université de Rennes, she returned to Togo and began teaching at University of Benin in Lomé.
 
But while she was glad to be making a difference at home, Gassou Tété-Bénissan longed to continue her education, and limited research facilities in Lomé came in her way.
 
“It was difficult to do research in my specialization due to the lack of adequate equipment,” she recalls.
 
A decade after returning home, she decided to continue her education in France, and enrolled in a PhD program at the Université Lille Nord de France’s School of Law and Health.
 
This wasn’t easy. Gassou Tété-Bénissan was married by this time with two children, and didn’t want to give up her teaching career. So for the next three years, she conducted her PhD research while commuting between France and Togo, taking samples out in the field and performing lab experiments on trips back home and in Lille. Writing her dissertation, while balancing family life and teaching, was tough. She considers those years as some of the most challenging ones in her career. Eventually, she earned her PhD in pharmaceutical and biological sciences, with a specialization in biochemistry.
 
Gassou Tété-Bénissan is one of the few lucky ones. Both her parents were well-educated, she was able to study abroad, and most importantly, she had family support. But for women who lack that kind of support, the role of well-knit female networks and mentoring by women role models becomes essential.

She became involved with the Togolese Women for the Promotion of Science and Technology because it helps improve Togolese girls’ secondary and university level performance in math, physical sciences and chemistry, and increase their enrollment in science programs by providing financial, educational, and moral support through counseling. For the past 15 years, the program has helped over 2,500 girls.

“The pass rate for girls who adhere to our tutoring program is over 70%, compared to 35% for non-participants,” Gassou Tété-Bénissan adds that hundreds of middle and high school girls have also received academic counseling.
 
She believes African governments must promote female leaders in order to provide young girls and women with more role models. She also feels that they need to create incentives to motivate girls by offering scholarships and grants in partnership with schools, municipalities, and local government.
 
“I think it is important to get political leaders involved in drafting legislation that promotes women’s education, and also provides them with equal employment opportunities, especially in decision-making positions,” she said.
 
How PASET is helping
 
Gassou Tété-Bénissan also sees initiatives like PASET, an Africa-led partnership to promote applied sciences, engineering and technology in the region, as a welcome step for women’s higher education in science and technology. PASET has been facilitated by the World Bank since its launch in 2013. She is excited to see the results of this unique partnership between African governments, private sector and regional organizations.
 
Togo has participated in PASET’s regional benchmarking initiative, which helps African universities in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (ASET) choose comparable institutions and indicators through a comprehensive analytical framework, and learn from global good practices.
 
“If PASET is well executed, Africa can improve and grow in its targeted areas much as countries like China, Korea, India, or Brazil have done,” she says.” It can go a long way in supporting new initiatives for learning and exchange of knowledge across the region.”
 
Get updates on the World Bank Group’s work on education on Twitter and Flipboard.

See resources on PASET here.

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