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Saturday, February 4, 2023

Girl Power – A chemical technologist looks to empower women through STEM

Natsai Mutezo-Mawoni knows exactly how to unleash the power of the universe. As a chemical technologist, she has been playing with chemical bonds and energy for years. But after getting sick of being the lone woman in every lab, she decided to unleash her personal power to get more women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) training.

By Tatenda Kanengoni, Bird Story Agency

If Natsai Mutezo-Mawoni’s story has one thread running through it, that thread is about being alone. As a woman scientist, she lists the occasions: one of four women in a class of 40 during her first-year chemical technology course at the Midlands State University. The only female in the manufacturing department at Dulux. The only woman in the technical department at Astra Paints.

“There were no females at all,” she said of the experience at the Dulux manufacturing department in Zimbabwe.

Only 30 per cent of science professionals in Sub-Saharan Africa are women but she was not to know that and growing up, she chose her passion early.

Growing up in Hwange, a small town in the North-Western part of Zimbabwe that houses the nation’s largest coal-fired power station, fueled Mawoni’s curiosity.

“I just always viewed science as something that would be interesting or fun to do, but I also had an appreciation of the fact that I could see science in action everywhere around me,” the 38-year-old says.

From the age of five, she was fascinated by science and it wasn’t long before she was going through her father’s university engineering transcripts to feed that curiosity. And watching medical dramas on TV.

At university, the full impact of her choice of career dawned on her when she looked around the lecture hall. And yet four out of forty was relatively good, compared to the number of women she would find when she started working in chemicals and paints companies.

At AstraPaints, a leading Zimbabwean paint manufacturing, and supply company for example:

“They had a very good training programme where they would take most chemistry, applied chemistry, chemical engineering graduates and so forth; and you were assigned to the manufacturing department or the technical department, which is more of the lab,” Mawoni recalls. “I was the only woman in the technical department.”

And this did not change in her other places of employment.

“I joined Dulux as a technical officer, so was still working in the technical department very similar to my previous role; I was the only female. In the manufacturing department, there were no females at all,” Mawoni explains.

This picture is not surprising.

Despite significant growth in this sector, there is still gross underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields across the continent. Old fashioned gender norms, societal stereotypes, and cultural biases are critical drivers of the low representation of women in male-dominated STEM fields. Coupled with poverty, many African families prioritize education for boys, especially in science subjects expecting girls to prioritize learning to run a household.

These discriminatory practices and policies deter girls from pursuing STEM careers and also contribute to women leaving STEM careers. For example, in South Africa, one of the continent’s largest economies, 50.3% of girls compared to 58.6% of boys pass Mathematics in the National Senior Certificate Examination.

The number of women graduating from tertiary education engineering fields is below 30 per cent in many Sub-Saharan countries. In 2019, Zimbabwe’s Gender Inequality Index score was 0.527, ranking 129 out of 162 countries.

According to research by Dr Mercy Manyuchi, a Zimbabwean chemical and metallurgical engineer and chief director at the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, women are still underrepresented in the chemical engineering field with an uptake of 25 per cent.

This environment leaves women at a disadvantage. This is why Mawoni is interested in potential interventions to upset some of the key drivers of gender disparities in STEM fields.

When Mawoni was promoted to the technical manager at Dulux, she used the opportunity to campaign for female students to be recruited as part of the firm’s industrial attachment.

“In my own small way, I see every interaction with a STEM professional who is early in their career who works under me or works with me for any reason, as an opportunity for mentorship,” she asserts

Kudzanai Makanyanga, a Chemical Engineering student in 2015, was a beneficiary of the campaign.

“I appreciate Natsai and her mentorship; the training that I got under her guidance is what has shaped my career now,” Makanyanga says of Mawoni.

“Right now, I am working as a production and quality engineer at LaFarge (cement company),” Makanyanga adds.

Mawoni has had a storied career so far. While working at Dulux, she successfully wrote a grant proposal that secured the company a million-dollar project, winning an award for the completion of the project within its stipulated six-month period.

During her time working as the Chief Technical Officer in paint manufacturing company Inesfly in Ghana, her core work focused on making paint to combat insects, including mosquitos that cause veterinary diseases like malaria.

“They were doing it using an innovative technology that’s actually patented so it hasn’t been done that way before,” she explained.

As male-dominated as the tech space is, however, Mawoni continues to serve as a source of encouragement for more women to dive in.

“I am passionate about women, business, science, and tech, and the role I see myself playing is transforming African businesses through innovation and entrepreneurship,” Mawoni asserted.

She successfully applied and was accepted into the highly competitive TechWomen six-week fellowship in Silicon Valley, travelling to Sierra Leone through the program delegation where she met a young woman she began mentoring who is now studying mechanical and aerospace engineering in Senegal.

“I’m just a girl from Hwange,” Mawoni chuckled, without paying much mind to the impact of her work and the trail she has set for other women to follow suit. Her goal is to continue paving the way for more women “to use science and technology to drive our economies forward.”

However, Mawoni is now keen on getting involved in policymaking to leverage STEM to grow economies–and for her, this is a path she not only wants women to walk but to trailblaze. From a development perspective, science and technology will play a leading role and she wants women at the cutting edge of development. It’s something she believes will be crucial for Africa’s future.

“I feel the only way we are actually going to make an impact and create solutions for Africa is that we need to solve problems that are unique to Africa, but we are only going to do that through innovation,” she said.

Source: Bird Story Agency/ Zimbabwe.


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