By Dr. Frances Colon, Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State
I arrived at Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology in Rwanda expecting to feel energized, the way that only the energy in a room full of brilliant, determined women can make you feel. The way that a phone call from your "hermana" gives you the nerve to negotiate that raise you deserve, or the way that my network of women scientist peers encourages me to one day run for office.
I came to tell my "science diplomat" story to 120 high school and college girls from across the United States and eight countries in Africa who are attending #WiSci2015 -- a science, technology, engineering, art and design and math (STEAM) camp for girls. The theory behind public-private partnerships like WiSci is that if we give girls technical skills, teach them how to network, inspire in them a global outlook and match them with mentors, they can be high academic achievers, launch their own businesses or successfully compete for jobs in the rapidly evolving global technology industry. In the next decade, 80 percent of jobs will require technical skills, yet currently, women in the United States only make up 28 percent of all science and engineering occupations. The Association of African Women in Science and Engineering estimates that in Africa, it's close to 20 percent.
Today, Rwanda is a different country than the one that news outlets put on our radars in the 1990s. It has come a long way, setting its sights on becoming a high technology hub for East Africa and making the right investments that have it well on its way to achieve that goal. In Rwanda, technology incubators are popping up in neighborhoods across Kigali, mobile phone penetration is around 75 percent, and 4G was launched in November of last year. The girls at the WiSci camp are part of this African technology revolution, and they were fierce, just as I expected. One day into the program, they took to Twitter to denounce the spotty wifi at the camp -- #WiScinoWiFi -- and new antennas went up the next day. I was feeling jazzed.
Women's networks have been my lifeline in the world of science policy-making. It's where I learned to recognize microaggressions from colleagues -- "Making you Acting Science and Technology Adviser for the past year just wasn't fair on you!" -- or my own unconscious biases when I repeatedly pulled together all male panels for events despite making myself believe that I was a crusader for women's rights. I was excited to be at WiSci. But after a few hours at Gashora, I began to realize that even though I had come a very long way (23 flight hours, in fact) to speak to a room of young women about empowering and opening doors for women in STEM, it just wasn't enough. As I sat with the girls by the lake for "office hours," the discussion quickly flowed to the obvious but critical element that was missing from my talk and from most women in STEAM conversations -- men. The girls wasted no time asking what it felt like to walk into a meeting room in Washington D.C. and be the only woman, or how they might convince their fathers that technology internships were critical for their future when most of them require working long hours into the night- a non-starter for women in their culture. I came to Rwanda to tell my story and talk about women, but I found myself talking about men. Men are missing from the "women in STEAM" discussion tables not only in Africa, but also in the United States -- yet, they are critical in our discussion about women in STEAM.
Men are still the majority at technology companies, occupying 70 percent of Google's workforce, 84 percent of Facebook's and 90 percent of Twitter's. This translates into everything from decision-making authority on products to recruitment and hiring strategies. We have had a few strong male voices promoting closure of the technology gender gap, but not the critical mass that we need to make a difference. Some men have been shut down for not getting our message quite right. "I am not needed anymore," wrote Vivek Wadhwa earlier this year, as he retired his women in technology advocacy hat because women had taken up the cause themselves.
Can we take this on without men as allies, if we are not at the decision table in significant numbers? How do we have a real conversation beyond recriminations and the us vs. them mentality? I believe that we need a few good men. Fathers, brothers, neighbors and friends of WiSci girls and the many talented people like them across the world. STEAM women need to be intentional about educating their male peers on how to speak to their peers, daughters and sisters about their limitless possibilities while at the same time opening the doors to those opportunities. We must provide men with the necessary tools to actively encourage our girls, make better decisions in the boardroom and influence their peers in the process. By proactively empowering some key male advocates like we support and empower ourselves, we could reach progress a lot faster.
Back at Gashora, I meet James Keach, a documentary director covering the WiSci STEAM camp. He thanks me for coming to see the girls in action, and before I can ask him, he volunteers: "I do this thinking of my two daughters. If they want to be engineers, it should be an option for them -- a real one." It's a start.
Dr. Frances Colón is the Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State where she promotes integration of science and technology into foreign policy dialogues; global scientific engagement for capacity-building and advancement of women in science. Dr. Colón earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2004 from Brandeis University and her B.S. in biology in 1997 from the University of Puerto Rico.