“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
These are the words of Ralph Ellerson, words that engineer Alexis Scott chose to quote when explaining what it feels like to be a woman in a science-based career field.
The world has a twofold problem with welcoming women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields: it teaches women not to see STEM as an option, and for those who do, the experience is generally belittling. Previously at Homeland Ghana, we celebrated International Day of Women and Girls in STEM, and on our social media pages, we shared the stories of inspiring Ghanaian female scientists who had broken down barriers and excelled in progressing in the scientific field. We looked at Dr Letitia Obeng, an amazing plant scientist who received the Order of the Star of Ghana award, set up the National Research Institute of Aquatic Biology, and pioneered valuable research into a black fly species that can cause river blindness disease. We celebrated the work of Mavis Owureku-Asare, winner of the 2013 AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) and leading lady in the research of solar dehydrating techniques to preserve tomatoes, a vital technique for farmers in the preservation of antioxidants. Finally, the wonderful computer scientist Anne Amazu inspired us with the co-founding of her wildly successful company, Nandimobile, which has been named the best SMS app in Ghana.
These women and their successes have defied the odds in a world where 57% of girls worldwide never even consider a career in STEM, but the struggle doesn’t stop there. Many women face adversity in the STEM workplace and in their academic journeys to the STEM workplace, most often by male superiors or colleagues whose subconscious or conscious misogyny leads to their doubting of a woman’s scientific competency. Women face harsher criticism, patronising comments and lower recognition. They have to achieve more in school and the workplace to be respected. Studies show that women in STEM publish less, are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers. Several comprehensive studies have been conducted in Ghanaian universities alone which demonstrate the same symptoms, finding that often some sources of support turned out to be sources of discrimination. Women are perceived as threats to the patriarchal status quo.
In Ghana, a girl’s struggle towards STEM starts right from the word go. Lack of role models for girls in schools, hostile school environments documented as sexual harassment from male students and inadequate institutional facilities, and culturally enforced gender roles – the issues that Homeland Ghana works tirelessly to fight – make it harder for girls to progress through their education.
At Homeland Ghana we want every girl to feel like she can achieve anything she wants with her education. The advice of successful women in STEM is to communicate closely with other women doing the same thing – to act as a helping hand for each other, guiding each other in an uplifting way. Despite the many hardships that come with choosing this path, Alexis Scott stresses to girls everywhere that you can always take charge of your own path. Invisibility is a choice, she says. Choose to be seen.