Technology and education are the foundation to bettering life in society

Maureen Agena
16 Jun 2021 0

According to the Gender strategy of the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF), the program has set an ambitious target for women’s representation among its PhD scholars (50%) based on a commitment to gender and social inclusion and excellence in Aplied Sciences Engineering and Technology (ASET) fields to support Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Enhancing gender inclusiveness in the sciences will require significant investment and deliberate efforts at various levels by various actors, including by universities, governments, and other institutions. However, the important payoffs from this investment justify the costs: removing existing barriers to women’s entry and advancement in ASET fields will increase substantially the number of intelligent, talented people making important scientific innovations. To date, since the award of the first scholarships in 2018, RSIF has awarded a total of 184 PhD scholarships, 71 of these going to female scholars, representing 39 percent of the total scholarships. In an interview with RSIF Manager Dr Moses Osiru, he shares about Fund’s tremendous growth over the past two years.

During the 12th RSIF Monthly Webinar Series held on 9th June 2021, RSIF hosted Ms. Aicha Evans, CEO of ZOOX an American autonomous vehicle technology Company which is head quartered in California, to a chat on “Women Leading in Science and Emerging Technologies”. icipe’s scientist and postdoctoral Fellow  Dr Fathiya M. Khamis moderated the conversation, which was attended by RSIF PhD scholars, RSIF host Universities, International partners, World Bank group representatives including Diariétou Gaye the Vice President and World Bank Group Corporate Secretary and ZOOX innovators. The vote of thanks to Ms. Aicha was given by Cohort one, RSIF PhD Scholar, Fatoumata Thiam from Senegal who is undertaking valuable research in designing self-optimized irrigation in the Sahel area based on the Internet of Things at the University of Gaston Berger (UGB).

In the chat below, Ms. Aicha answers some of the fundamental questions on why Science and emerging technologies should matter to everyone but especially to women.

Q. Why should Science and emerging ttechnologies matter to Women?

A. Oh, you know, Women are kind of the core of society, we make a lot of things possible, we also have the population. I think that some of the experiences that happen though growing up as women and expectations that are set on us, actually are very very conducive to technology. I do not believe in technology for the sake of geeking out, I believe in technology for the sake of really helping the world. That is what technology has done for thousands of years and will continue to do, and I think that women can bring the aspect of solving problems for society and advancing society as opposed to just geeking out when it comes to technology. The other thing is, I truly believe that we experience a lot of things at a young age from a societal standpoint, that if we apply technology to that, everybody meaning, men, women, however you identify yourself, will all benefit and this is something I am passionate about and committed to.

Q. What inspired you to get into science, engineering career path?

A. Well, very early on in my career, I could see the difference of when you have a lot of technology verses when you don’t have a lot of technology. Whether it is through telecommunication, when I was bouncing between Paris and Dakar, and just the ability to remain in touch with my friends. I know everybody has smart phones right now, that’s not the way it was back then. Back then there was a little box with a handset and rotary phone. It was super expensive. And so, in terms of hacking my basic phones to be able to stay in contact with people, it wasn’t hacking so I could be known as a hacker, it was really in service of staying in touch with my friends.

Second of all, when I looked at education, when I looked at just life in Darker, education is really part of the core of the society in Senegal. But still I could see like living in France and seeing what technology was making possible. I was very lucky and fortunate at a young age to be in a situation where I could travel and see a lot of the world, and you could see that basically Technology and education are the foundation to bettering life in society no matter where you are. And it doesn’t have to be the same kind of education. For example, e-commerce being born or spearheaded in Kenya was not surprising. I love the creativity of saying no, we are not going to replicate the backing infrastructure as it is known in the rest of the world, we are going to leapfrog and figure out another way to distribute money inside of the country and so e-commerce and the technology around that was born.

When it comes to technology there are usually two phases; there is an inflection phases where a wave is being born. Think about computers, telecommunication, cellular technology, the smart phone, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) or exploit phases where the inflection point has already happened, and you are just basically milking the situation and are creating derivatives at iterating. You are all getting educated at a time of an inflection point. What is happening through computers, AI, robotics? These are technological inflection points that are going to affect every aspect of life, from transportation, agriculture, medicine, banking like what is happening to crypto for example and you all get to participate in that. Pick your field and make the world better. I do not know what could be more exciting. And as women, you have an advantage, you see societal things that others don’t, and you have the opportunity to ride this, make the way, do things that are unimaginable today, take advantage of it.

Q. Do you think STEM fields are at a disadvantage because of the limited involvement of women?

A. We should turn it from a challenge to an opportunity. By the way, it starts very early on when you just watch kids in elementary school. We need to demystify STEM. We really do. It is almost like by making it so special, we are already telling young girls, oh it is not for you or it is going to be difficult and so on. We need to look at how we are teaching STEM, and early on sort of help young girls see that this is not about being the special one or the geeky one or ‘you are like the boys’. This is a tool or and an opportunity to basically solve the problem whichever one you want to solve. And to grow up and make a good living, because independence has never been a bad thing. I think that there are a lot of things we do very unconsciously in language, how we talk about it, how we even reward young girls who are doing well, and to me the demystification and democratisation of STEM is absolutely critical. The world bank and all these organisations should look at it from that standpoint and encourage the numbers. Once you go through that and see what is possible, you don’t have to convince people anymore because they see the value and human beings are driven by value.  There is a shortage, we make it too difficult and too special today and we need to change our mindset including how we talk about, how make it available, how we present it. I would live the first experience of a young girl with math to be around solving problem as  opposed to learn the methodology, learn this equation, the stress of your multiplication tables. Let us start with what becomes possible, and then from there, the kids will say well, STEM is making that possible and then I think we will increase the numbers dramatically.

Around the world, let us apply STEM to the local problems and the local opportunities. Let us use local event, problems, things that people can relate to and then STEM attaches to the emotion of the person, and I think great things will happen.

Q. If you were to sum up, based on your career and experiences, what two messages would you give that have been instrument to you as a successful science leader.

A. I would use three if I may.

First of all, Demystify, you are the boss of you, demystify! don’t let anybody define things for you. You define things, you define people, you happened to things.

Second of all, be resilient. Look, one days maybe I will write a book or something, I think we tend to focus on the destination once we have already arrived, and we don’t look at the Journey and the ups and downs. I wasn’t born with the God given right to achieve what I have achieved, and by the way, I have a lot more that I want to achieve. Be resilient and understand that it is a Journey. Successes are supposed be celebrated, failures are supposed to be acknowledged, understood and learning applied and then we move on to the next things. And by the way, if you are not failing, you are not doing anything meaningful, you are not finding root.

Last but not least, have some fun, enjoy the journey. We are so serious about things, I promise you, you all have long lives ahead of you, by and large, when you look at the normal distribution of the curve. You will have ups and downs and joys and failures. And by the way if you don’t have failures, you also cannot enjoy the successes.

Q. The leaky pipe for women starts right from lower levels of education and through to higher education, I think especially in Africa thereby reducing the numbers in science significantly, what do you think are the key differences, if any, for women perusing science careers in the global South Vis-a vis the global North

A. The global north is a little bit ahead but let us not exaggerate it, it’s not like they are doing super well. Every time I look at “diversity and inclusion” we seem to be stuck at 20-25% women in the North and so it is not like they are doing awesome. Now, we should take some learnings from that and we should accelerate. When it comes to Women or Girls and STEM, we should focus on the person, there is no question about it, but we should also focus on the value system and society. I think that having people, teachers, educated family members, explain in a positive non-arrogant way, to the units of family and the units of society how beneficial it will be for society at large, for girls and Women to be in STEM, is really important. Because you do need a support system. I have had very tough patches in my career or actually even as a student, as a teenage and then as a young adult, that if I didn’t have a support system that made it okay and that sponsored me that was there for me, I don’t think I wouldn’t have made it. So that expression that ‘it takes a village………’. I think we are focusing a lot on the individual and not on the village. We need to focus more on the village, such that the village has a vested interest in the individuals staying in STEM.

For more information and the engagement with Ms. Aicha, Please Listen to the webinar recording through this access Link and Passcode: Z00XRS1FRec*