Remarks to BPW Conference
"Leaders of the World Empowering Women"
Her Excellency Ameenah Gurib-Fakim
It is a privilege to be addressing this important conference on behalf of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women on “Leaders of the World Empowering Women.”
One reason that I was eager to accept this invitation to speak was in the message of the title of this talk itself.
By framing the invitation as an opportunity to address how all the world’s leaders must empower women, not just the world’s women leaders empowering other women, my hosts have revealed a broad understanding of one of the most fundamental requirements to create prosperity in Africa: we must bring to bear the energy, talent, intelligence and creativity of all of our people to build our best possible future.
So I thank the Federation for the opportunity to help create awareness and build solutions to this challenge. Discounting opportunities of women to fully contribute to all sectors of our economy and society is like trying to win a prize fight with one arm in a sling.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am probably safe in my assumption that no one in this room disagrees with the assertion that we must draw upon all of our resources -- across nationalities, geographies, religion, culture and gender -- to create a prosperous world.
So if we all agree, why aren’t we seeing corresponding practices and results?
This is not an African problem: this is a global problem.
And it’s not solvable by fiat [“FEE-aht.”], even well intentioned. Fifty percent of the parliament of Rwanda is women, and every publicly-held Swedish company has at least one woman on its Board of Directors.
But these mandates are more symbolically helpful than a formula for change. The reality is that when it comes to women’s leadership, we are all behind.
Let’s take the U.S., supposedly a gender-enlightened country, as an example.
The recent Women in the Workforce study conducted by McKinsey and commissioned by LeanIn.org reports that in America, more than 75% of corporate CEOs include gender diversity at the top of their priority list.
But the same McKinsey study also reveals a stark gap between aspiration and reality: men are promoted at a 30% higher rate than are women in the early career stages, and while women request raises and promotions as frequently as do men, they receive more pushback when they do.
So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that the success of women in that part of the world falls off steadily at each successive step on the career ladder: women are 46% of those hired at an entry-level position, fall to 37% of managers, 33% of directors, 29% of vice presidents, 24% of senior vice presidents and just 19% of those making it to the C-suite.
Following this trajectory, it is no wonder that I am one of just 13 of 178 heads of state in the world that are women, and, with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, one of just two women heads of state in Africa… soon the only one… not for long I hope!
What is the answer? In my view, the full inclusion of all of our people is the key to prosperity.
And the best foundation on which to create that prosperity is science, technology and innovation.
I am firmly convinced that the highest returns – to our economic development and also to our health and wellbeing – come from investing in the education, workforce and governance conditions to enable an STI-based economy to thrive.
This can be achieved only by the inclusion of all our most ambitious and creative contributors, women and men.
Africa has many proud examples of women who drive prosperity.
Not just as the President of my country, but also as an academic, a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife and a biodiversity scientist, I daily look around me at the women – both known to us and part of the vast anonymous sisterhood of resourceful, inspirational African women – on whose shoulders I stand.
Dora Akunyili of Nigeria dedicated herself to the advancement of quality medicines.
Wangari Maathai spent her life protecting the forests of her native Kenya. And countless African women are the gatekeepers and human repositories for precious traditional knowledge.
If properly harnessed, Indigenous Knowledge Systems can be captured through the women who hold them to increase agricultural yields, protect our environment, safeguard our supply of clean water and improve animal and human health.
My advice to girls and young women who wish to become a leader is to get the best education they can, and to consider focusing that education on science, technology and innovation.
This is because, I predict, the world’s leaders will increasingly come from the ranks of those whose wisdom is firmly rooted in STI.
Such knowledge creates an orientation of unbiased analysis, informed engagement and rational thought.
This framework must replace empty promises, turning people against each other, dogmatism and personal charisma as the dominant qualities of leadership in the future.
When we consider the macroeconomics of Africa, we may appear to be at a hopeless disadvantage: our Continent is home to 15% of global population, but produces only 3% of global GDP while carrying 25% of the world’s disease burden.
But in the last generation, we in Africa have exhibited an ability to exploit our disadvantages to leap frog to a better place.
We see this in multiple industries.
Innovation that promises to deliver broad products and services to address basic needs and feed our economy can be easier to introduce in Africa than in other parts of the world.
This is because a relative lack of “legacy” means that there is less existing infrastructure to dismantle.
So, for example, Kenya is the global leader in mobile-based money transfer through its product Mpesa.
Mpesa was created and has thrived because the great majority of Kenyans were at the time that Mpesa was introduced “unbanked” – that is, they didn’t have a sufficient credit history or resources in order to qualify for a bank account, so Big Banks didn’t have much incentive to resist the creation of a grassroots mobile-money service.
Similarly, Mkopa, another successful East African technology-based company, is able to provide dwelling-level, sustainable energy solutions because the majority of people in its market don’t have access to utility lines…. because utility companies didn’t see a lucrative market in building them.
In scientific publishing, we don’t have a multi-billion dollar enterprise like for example does the Netherlands, dependent on controlling access to the world’s scientific literature to create shareholder value.
This has left an opening to launch AAS Open Research, the publishing platform of the African Academy of Sciences that will promote African science that is based on community engagement and full transparency and accessibility.
We can do this because an entrenched publishing industry has no incentive to prevent us from doing it.
Ladies and gentlemen
Science, technology and innovation have the power to disrupt and shift trajectories as STI increasingly influences all aspects of life today, not just careers directly in the sciences.
STI solutions are required to grow business and social enterprise, improve health outcomes -- including the sexual and reproductive health that is so important to enable women and girls to determine their own destinies -- provide clean energy, manage the environment and develop infrastructure.
Indeed, the Sustainable Development Goal on Gender directs the global community to, “Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.”
It is therefore imperative that we do not allow anything to interfere with the opportunity for all of our young people, regardless of gender, to be full participants in driving an STI-based African future.
Just as was documented in the U.S. where there is loss of women with each step up the corporate ladder, there are parallel challenges in Africa for girls and young women to move up the science, technology, education and math education ladder: the number of girls and women in STEM declines steadily on the arc from secondary school to university, laboratories, teaching, policy making and leadership.
Let’s examine the explicit and subtle factors that contribute to the discouragement of girls from pursuing science and technology.
In the STEM realm, as with anything, there is good news and bad news.
The good news: in Sub-Saharan Africa between 2004 and 2014, 94% of the education gender gap was closed.
In my own small country of Mauritius, where progress for women and girls in the sciences made a big leap when the country became independent in 1976, I am proud to report that we are a world leader in the proportion of women who receive PhDs in science disciplines.
But notwithstanding these impressive gains in girls’ education, the bad news is real, and it is sobering.
A 2016 UNESCO report provides new evidence that gender gaps in education persist.
This is evident in the fact that sixteen million girls between the ages of 6 and 11 worldwide will, tragically, never start school, compared to 8 million boys thus deprived.
The gap widens when one moves beyond education to factor in future employment and wage earnings. In fact, the World Economic Forum finds that Sub-Saharan Africa is at only 68% gender parity as of 2016.
This leaky pipeline, where we lose the potential contributions of girls in STI starting from the youngest years of school through early and mature career stages, means we are losing potential talent to contribute to our prosperity and wellbeing. Our arm is still in the sling.
There are great divides in women’s access to, participation in, support for and leadership within the STI sector, despite women being on the frontlines of sustainable energy use, climate change adaptation, economic production and as protectors of extensive traditional knowledge.
In the formal STI sector worldwide, women make up under 10% of those in innovation hubs and as recipients of venture capital funding. This may be in part because, as a large body of research finds, men are more inclined to take risk than are women. Studies suggests that society and culture undermine the internalization of risk-taking in girls, but not boys, by the time they even enter adulthood. This actively limits the success of women in entrepreneurship and STI, which is dependent on a high tolerance for risk.
The reasons for these disconnections are many and pernicious. Globally, girls demonstrate no less interest in science and math education in primary school than do boys, but they start to select themselves out of STEM courses in early secondary school.
Societal attitudes and bias hinder girls’ self-confidence and ambition, with science and technology, often considered male domains, a sad casualty.
The causes go back to the pre-teen years. Girls and boys take risk comparably until they reach young adolescence. Starting at age 10 or 11, according to research out of the University of Stockholm, there is a significant drop in the willingness of girls to take risk. Interestingly, the risk aversion of girls is further amplified when they are in a male-dominated environment; indeed, teen girls perform less well cognitively in male environments than they do in female environments. (Thus the underrepresentation of women in STI exacerbates the problem.) Not coincidentally, another finding, reported in the Harvard Business Review, tells us that stress is a separate compounding variable of risk-aversion in women. These effects build through adulthood to the extent that while men are more risk-seeking than boys, women are less risk-seeking than they were as girls.
Thus we are faced with the debilitating reality that the self-confidence of girls is undermined in ways that damages their potential for success in risk-necessary fields. Something in the alchemy of education, role models and lack thereof, expectations, persistently diminishing stereotypes, learned behaviors, and cultural beliefs results in the resistance of women to risk-taking. A willingness to take risk and to accept its inevitable sidekick, failure, is essential to success in any entrepreneurial activity, including STI. And even when individual women have managed to compile an effective track-record of risk and risk management, because women are persistently perceived to be risk-averse as a gender, they are less likely to win the confidence of investors and funders when they perceive their gender as risk-averse. This results in significant gaps in access and investment opportunities for women.
No wonder that women represent only 5% of membership in national academies of science and technology.
We are similarly underrepresented in research and development, publication, and leadership in government and the private sector.
We must urgently address the disassociation among the interest and ability of women to provide brainpower, the self-confidence of young women as they confront risk, and the inclusion of women in the formal power structure. We must boost the self-confidence of girls starting at a young age, and help them internalize a willingness to gamble rationally, and fail constructively.
Governments must also be held accountable.
Policy makers must create the right conditions to encourage STI investment, and reward positive behaviors such as inclusion, environmental preservation and economic independence.
A critical initiative that is based on the premise that science and technology will be the key to driving wellbeing in Africa is the Coalition for African Research and Innovation, known as “CARI.”
This is a pan-African initiative to build Research & Development infrastructure across the Continent.
CARI was created by a coalition of stakeholders who see we are losing our homegrown talent because our research and training capacity in Africa lags that in many other parts of the world.
Even more devastating, we fail to grow our local talent as much as we could, by not sufficiently investing in world-class STI in Africa, and to the extent that we are still leaving our girls and women behind.
I have agreed to serve as Chair of the Leadership Committee of CARI because I believe that its goals will not be reached without the full inclusion of talent wherever and whomever it comes from, and because we need more women who can raise awareness of this and lead by example.
Just as we have bypassed the rest of the world to global leadership in financial services, indigenous knowledge, sustainable energy and scientific publishing, Africa can stake out a bold claim for the central role of women leaders in shaping and delivering our future prosperity.
We can leapfrog the world in “Empowering Women’s Leadership.” Here’s the formula: the self-confidence of