I recently learnt that a United Kingdom-based Malawian woman, Ivana Alvares-Marshall, has been appointed by the UK Minister of Aviation as one of that country’s Department for Transport (DfT) Aviation Ambassadors for 2022.
According to a brief on the UK Government website, as DfT’s Aviation Ambassador, Alvares Marshall and 11 other aviation practitioners in the UK will be acting as role models, inspiring the next generation of aviation professionals. The 12 will be championing inclusion and diversity in the aviation industry.
I have no doubt that Alvares-Marshall will carry out her ambassadorial role well. She is truly carrying the Malawian flag and inspiring young girls to believe, literally, that not even the sky is the limit when it comes to chasing and achieving their dreams.
I first met Alvares-Marshall in Blantyre in October 2019 when she led a group of 60 women pilots from various countries to host a global conference under an organisation called the Ninety-Nines (The 99s). It was a historical moment for Malawi, as this was the first time ever an African country had hosted a global conference for aviatrices. Alvares-Marshall was operating in Malawi as a free-lance pilot at the time.
She bemoaned how women are underrepresented in her sector, where only 5.3 percent of pilots are female, and always had a passion to see more women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) . Early this year, Alvares-Marshall, with support from the Airbus Foundation and African Ninety Nines, launched a programme called Little Engineer in Malawi aimed at educating the youth in areas of Stem through interactive online workshops.
It is interesting to see how local women in Stem have been seeking ways to motivate others to join careers that were once considered exclusive to men.
Alvares-Marshall’s exploits reminded me of another trail-blazing woman in Stem, Rachel Sibande—a digital and data development specialist who has pioneered various initiatives to advance digital skills among children, girls, youth, and women in the country. Her track record includes championing the development of innovative technology solutions in various fields including agriculture, public health, elections monitoring, citizen engagement, disaster management and digital financial services in various countries. Sibande’s numerous awards speak to the level of impact she has made in Stem in Malawi and beyond.
There are other inspirational women in Stem in Malawi, whose work is making invaluable contributions to the country’s development. Among them is Professor Nyovani Madise, a globally-renowned scientist who now heads the Malawi office of the African Institute for Development Policy (Afidep). She has written over 100 peer-reviewed research publications on global health issues. Madise is also an adviser to the World Health Organisation and has addressed various international conferences on topics regarding investing in health and education of Africa’s next generation.
There are also many inspiring women pursuing non-traditional careers such as pilots, physicians, engineers, and computer programmers. They include Captain Yolanda Kaunda, Malawi’s first female aircraft Captain and its second female pilot; and various surgeons, scientists, and academics that are making critical contributions to technological innovation in the country.
Sadly, however, women in the Stem fields are still grossly underrepresented. Currently, only less than 20 percent of females graduate from tertiary education in any field in malawi. This is despite that girls’ enrollment at primary school level is higher than that of boys.
Many girls drop out before completing their secondary education. Of those who complete secondary education, even fewer make it to tertiary institutions as many lack the requisite skills to enroll or excel in Stem-related programmes at university level.
Having fewer women in the Stem industry also contributes to this status quo, as it denies young girls in the country exposure to the world of women in Stem. In turn, this is creating a vicious circle of poverty, as it means that most women will remain in jobs that are lower paying or less developmentally impactful in a world that is increasingly becoming technology-driven.
Existing data shows that gender norms, stereotypes, biases, and sexual harassment are some of the key drivers of low representation of women in male-dominated Stem fields. Gender expectations by families, society, culture that assign certain roles to specific genders and give preference of access to education to boys where resources are inadequate, for example, further propagate these stereotypes. This is why we need policies–and practices–which encourage and support girls in pursuing Stem careers and also enable women to stay in their Stem careers. There is need for government and other stakeholders to actively work on reducing challenges that limit the chances of girls’ exposure to Stem careers to encourage more girls to pursue Stem programmes. By doing this, we will disrupt the vicious circle that confines most women to narrow nd low-paying sources of income that only worsen poverty both at the household and national levels. Happy New Year!