While women have made immense advances in scientific fields in recent years, the numbers still don’t tell an equitable story. Across the world, they’re typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues, and researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers; their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals and they are often passed over for promotion. They represent about a third of all researchers – and only 12% of members of national science academies.
This is the first in a series of Q&As with women scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF). Ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February), we asked them what motivates them, any barriers they overcame, what it means to them to be a woman in science, and why it’s important for women to have equitable positions and adequate representation in the sector.
Nairobi-based Mary Njenga is a research scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF and a visiting lecturer at Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi. She did a Postdoctorate in bioenergy at ICRAF and holds a PhD in Management of Agroecosystems and Environment, an MSc in Biology of Conservation, and a BSc in Natural Resource Management.
Centred on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7: Affordable Clean Energy, while also integrating SDG 5: Gender Equality, Njenga’s research focuses on sustainable and efficient biomass energy production and use systems and their interconnections with environment including climate change, livelihoods, circular bioeconomy, and rural-urban linkages. She also works on adaptive technology development and transfer, including gender integration and co-learning through transdisciplinary approaches. She is passionate about communicating research findings and lessons and has published over 190 publications, and contributed to raising over USD7 Million for research she believes in. She aims to contribute to improving energy and food security, health, eliminating poverty, promoting gender equality, enhancing sustainable ecosystems services, rural and urban development, and mitigating climate change.
Q: Why did you become a scientist? What motivates you in your work?
A: My motivation as a woman scientist is to create the change I want to see. Growing up in rural Kenya, I experienced first-hand the difficulties of meeting basic human needs. I watched my mother and older sisters being denied opportunities to be who they wanted to be. I made a decision to be an instrument of change to improve livelihoods and the environment we depend on – even if it took incremental improvements on a one-brick-at-a-time basis.
When I discussed this with my father, he said: “Mary, if you want to make decisions to improve your life and that of other girls and women, you need to be academically and financially empowered.” Our journey together began at an early age, in primary school, and it was transformative. He supported my career path – beginning with my education. He mentored me, and most importantly he shifted perceptions and rules in our household and extended family on girls’ responsibilities, and protected me against social-cultural norms that saw my ambitions as an unbecoming expectation for a girl. Thank heavens my mother and oldest sister played along and overcame the societal peer pressure that came their way for allowing me to grow up the way I wanted to.
Q: Can you share an example of a barrier you overcame to become a scientist? What about an opportunity (situation or person) that pulled you forward in your career?
A: Barriers and hurdles date back to childhood. Having adequate time for homework and revision was a challenge due to competing domestic chores like cooking meals after school. I negotiated to be allowed to fetch a few cans of water from the river, which took less time [than cooking]. Nevertheless, I still had to stay up late studying under a tin lamp.
When I completed primary school, I knew I needed much more time for studying – especially the sciences I was interested in – and I asked my dad to take me to a boarding school. Kambaa Girls High School was a stone’s throw away from home, and he paid for me to be a boarder. I was one of only four pupils out of 75 who went on to university, where my career as a scientist began for real.
For many years, I have had women role models and mentors – including powerful and influential ones like Vickie Wilde of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, founder of AWARD Nancy Karanja of the University of Nairobi, Ramni Jamnadass of CIFOR-ICRAF, Yvonne Pinto of ALINe, and Ruth Mendum of Penn State University, and Wenda Bauchspies of the National Science Foundation. The list is endless. Having a supportive supervisor in Catherine Muthuri is also critical. Hanging out with Esther Njuguna-Mungai of ILRI, Wanjira Mathai of WRI, and Margaret Waruiru of Safaricom is a blessing. These are women with whom I open my heart, learn and enjoy friendship.
There are so many women role models for girls in Africa, and these kinds of networks are essential: if girls can’t find them by themselves, please can someone create the bridges?
Q: What does it mean to you to be a woman in science?
A: Being a woman in science is the most beautiful and fulfilling thing. I do the kind of work I love: engaging in a transformative agenda that touches on energy, emancipation, ecology, and the local economy. When I have to work harder than necessary “just because I am a woman’” (a phrase from Dolly Parton’s music), I do it with passion, though sometimes I feel disappointed “just because I am human”: that is when it really counts to have someone trustworthy to talk to.
Q: Why is it important to have women leading in science?
A: Each of us represents a collection of identities and perspectives. I am a woman, but I am also a Kenyan, a natural scientist, a person of faith, a member of my home village community, and a participant in the international dialogue about science and the advancement of human flourishing. When I initiate a project, I bring all of my identities and influences with me, and I look for a diversity of team members who do the same. No one has all the answers by themselves.
When I initiate a project, I bring all of my identities and influences with me, and I look for a diversity of team members who do the same. No one has all the answers by themselves.
Mary Njenga, CIFOR-ICRAF scientist
Let me give you an example. Domestic, repetitive, unpaid work – like carrying heavy loads of firewood from forests – and its associated drudgery on women and girls may look like an ordinary chore of accessing cooking energy, but I tell you it’s not. When women and girls narrate their likes and dislikes of firewood collection from forests to me as a scientist, the fact that I have lived this problem myself means I know there are better ways to bring firewood closer to home and use it in more efficient ways that blend with cooking culture. I wrote about this, with a research team that I led, in a 2021 publication.
It doesn’t matter who you are: please, be an instrument of change in transforming women and girls’ wellbeing. Make it one of your purposes in life. Watch this short film Purpose, which will walk you through my career pathway and hopefully be an inspiration in following your star.
At the end of the day, my generation of women scientists are trailblazers. We have proven that we can do the work, and that our complicated understandings of reality and the role of science are what the world requires if we are to solve multi-dimensional problems like climate change and global inequality.
Read more about Mary Njenga’s work:
- Transforming Kenya’s invasive ‘mathenge’ bushes into charcoal farms
- Recovering bioenergy in Sub-Saharan Africa: Gender dimensions, lessons and challenges
- Biochar for climate-change mitigation and restoration of degraded lands
- Charcoal production from invasive Prosopis juliflora in Baringo County, Kenya
- Science into policy: Participatory development of biomass energy regulatory instruments in Kenya
For more information on Mary Njenga’s work, please contact her at M.Njenga@cifor-icraf.org
For more information about CIFOR-ICRAF’s work on gender equality and social inclusion (GESI), please contact Elisabeth Leigh Perkins Garner (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Anne Larson (email@example.com).
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