Coach Africa Women Impact Summit – The changing hats of women in Power

Coach Africa Women Impact Summit – The changing hats of women in Power Keynote by Her Excellency Dr Ameenah Gurib Fakim, Former President of the Republic of Mauritius


As a former first female African Head of state of my country, I am first and foremost a scientist, who has always used my pulpit to champion not just the cause of science for development but also to speak on the empowerment of women. It is becoming increasingly obvious that without their or our contribution, we will not be making headway! In fact, my narrative has been couched along the following… You can never win a football match by leaving 52% of the team on the bench.

When it comes to thinking about women in powerful positions, we are often blinded by and stubborn products of long-embedded bias that tends to mire our thoughts. The higher up the status pecking order, up to and including the position of Head of State, the more this tends to hold true. We are all aware of this and we fight against it on a daily basis across Africa and all over the world. We are also aware that this attitude pulls us back, and slows the evolution of our country, our region and even the global economy. But these prejudices date back to the existence of mankind; this sort of entrenchment takes active, sustained and dedicated effort to drive away.

It cannot be done in a single generation, but it must be done at all cost. We will need a complete mind set shift for this 21st century for the full and equitable economic participation of women in order to fully unleash all of the earning power of our national economies and, eventually, the global economy. We must be able to say collectively – let us dare to be the generation to make the definitive difference; let us act together as a community of women and rise to conquer our own timidity, learn to take risks, defeat our own prejudices and even subconscious antagonism towards other women to face up to the fact that the elimination of gender inequity is in reach.

Ultimately, it will be for us women to open the doors so that others may live and prosper. We need to direct that kindred spirit to help out the younger generation; take our literal and figurative daughters by the hand and teach them to benefit through our experiences. Mind you, this is easier said than done. Women tend to disparage other women more than do men… that’s the tragedy and the paradox!Being honest with ourselves and with each other about the subtle undercurrents that can result in competition winning out over mutual support is the first, essential step toward rooting out our weaknesses and freeing our better selves, as individuals and as the sisterhood of women. So the question now is: how do we proceed? How do we build a critical mass of empowered, prosperous and confident women who can drive our own destiny?


Let us start with the basics – Education! As Nelson Mandela said, education is “The most powerful weapon that can be used to change the world”. Mandela’s belief has special leverage as applied to women. As another great world leader, Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “educating a girl is educating a family, a community, a nation and eventually the world”.


Educating women creates an amazing ripple effects as an educated woman is likely to spend her resources on her family and on the education and health of her children. Thus, educating a girl must not be perceived as a threat, but rather as both a blessing and as a practice that makes good economic sense. I am a product of that vision. My parents believed deeply in education for their children, no less for me than for my brother. Indeed, they were right: education has elevated me, giving me that springboard of substance and self-confidence to aim higher. Good education empowers, breaks down barriers; promotes critical thinking and frees the individual from exclusion, and in my case, insularity. Without a good education, we start life with a severe disadvantage, one that few are ever able to compensate for. This will become increasingly true into the future, given the technological world in which we live. For those without education, the future is beyond bleak.

In 2015, for the first time in the history of the UN, science was recognized as having a central role to play in helping humanity achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Success in the SDGs will lead to a better world for all of us. This is where the investment in a girl’s education is critical, especially in developing countries: it is precisely in these regions that the contribution of women and girls can make the biggest difference in stimulating the economy. This is where a technical driven government with science savvy technocrats can make a big difference in driving the science agenda if we are to leave no one behind. This is where the science trained girl child will be able to make a contribution to the development agenda of her community and her country. This is also where I see convergence between the political and science worlds – the drive towards generating tangible results on the ground.

The International Day for Women in Science serves as an annual reminder and hold us to account on how we are advancing women in science, technology and innovation more broadly and critically for achieving gender equality and ultimately, all other development goals. That is also what I have learned on my personal journey—and I am grateful for the opportunity to share some of my experiences. Parents, teachers, and career guidance counselors all have a significant role in assisting or hindering the way young women chose their career paths and that choice begins early on from school, all the way through to higher education. Science is often rejected as a career choice due to limited information available and positive role models to encourage young girls in participating. Career orientation offered at school through the usage of new technologies is an important step in that direction; however, particularly in countries where the family unit is especially influential in career decisions, parents must be brought in and educated on the possibilities available. Today I will share with you my experiences. They may not constitute the ultimate jewels of wisdom but as Mark Twain had once said: “It is better to have second-hand diamonds than none at all.”


So, here is where my journey began.

I am an only daughter and I have one brother. I have had the privilege of having had loving and supportive parents. I was born in a Muslim family and my late mother was a home maker. My father, who was a schoolteacher, believed in equal opportunities for boys and girls. Importantly, right from an early age, I was allowed to make choices, take decisions. The import of this is that one had to suffer the consequences should things go wrong. I could say that from an early age, my starting point could not have been more positive and empowering. At school, I was blessed with motivated teachers who took made me discover the beauty of science and help demystify it by answering to all the questions that a 12 year old could come up with – like why is the sky blue? Why are some plants yellow while the majority remain green?. They happened to be lady teachers having joined a ‘Catholic Convent school’. Since then, I remained convinced that I could study the sciences further as I was, and still am, fascinated by it. Upon advice from parents and relatives, I went to seek the advice of a career’s guidance on the future career prospects in the sciences.

We are in 1978. Man has already walked on the moon 9 years ago; test tube Baby Brown was born in that very year. The transformation that science could bring to human lives was simply mind blowing. Yet I was discouraged to take up the sciences and the reasons advanced to me were as follows: I was female and science is not for me. Also when I will return to Mauritius after my studies, there will be no job opportunities for me. I returned home and said to my father I am going to follow my heart and study chemistry. I have never looked back! I spent three years doing my undergraduate degree with one year out in industry where I learnt the ropes of research and then got a scholarship for my PhD. After my PhD, I got a postdoc in the US but went back home and again NO regrets. I came back and joined the University there and became the first woman professor in 2001; first woman dean of the faculty of science and first women deputy vice chancellor. In 2012, I retired to become an entrepreneur translating my research work into a business… again a premier.


Empowering women makes good economic sense.

Over the years, things have changed in Mauritius and in many parts of the African continent in terms of both access to education but these efforts are still not enough to tackle the challenges that the continent is facing – climate change, population explosion, food and water security, health issues etc.. and now the impacts of Covid-19. With all these issues on our plate, we should care more deeply about gender. No – it is not just a moral issue to educate our girls. Gender equality is critical for the economic well-being of both men and women, of society as a whole.

‘When women participate in the economy, growth is stronger and it is inclusive”.

We know—based on a wealth of research and experience—that empowering women can be an economic game changer for any country. If women were to participate in the labor force to the same extent as men, national income could increase by 5 percent in the U.S., 9 percent in Japan, and 27 percent in India. Equal pay and better economic opportunities for women boost economic growth. It helps increase the size of the pie for everyone to share, both genders alike. Equal opportunities promotes diversity and reduces economic inequality around the world. No team can ever consider winning comfortably a match if the captain excludes 52% of his team! On the African continent, Women feed the continent. She will have to be empowered with knowledge, with the appropriate technology, finances, land. Here I would like to pay tribute to late Wangari Maathai, scientist and first African woman Nobel Peace Prize, for having raised our consciousness into the realm of environment protection. She stood up for what she believed in and drew on her observation of a child on the state of the forest to drive her agenda on the protection and the safeguarding of the forest in her native Kenya.

With education and labour come another important element that will ensure full female economic empowerment – Leadership. Female leaders have been few, but those that have made it to the highest level of leadership have had a lasting legacy. I think of Catherine the Great; Elizabeth I, Wangari Maathai and Marie Curie. They are women who declined the well-beaten track and followed their own courageous and visionary trail. But the sad fact remains that the higher you go up the ladder, the fewer women you meet. In this 21st century, the African continent has had 5 women heads of states and as we speak there is only one in Ethiopia. There’s only 9 African countries on the Global Gender Gap Index 2018. Still, I will draw on my own personal experience today and how I was brought to the helm of my country, becoming its first female president and first Muslim female president for the African continent. Breaking through the glass ceiling is important and female leadership or female more precisely female in power matters now more than ever. In the world stage of recognition, we find less than 5% of Nobel prize winners are women.

One irony and tragedy of this is that women leaders have qualities that can result in better leadership, because they tend to make decisions based on consensus, inclusion, caring, empathy, compassion and focus on long term sustainability…Covid has revealed that. Yet in unacceptable numbers, they are denied access. We must show that by being caring, we are not being weak, and that, conversely, toughness is not necessarily strength. We must help build confidence in our girls and younger women. It is denied to the girl child when she is told systematically from a tender age that she cannot become an engineer, or that physics and mathematics are too complicated for her. Her lack of confidence is also reinforced in her job. She tends to only apply for a promotion when she feels she is 200% prepared, in contrast to a man who, at a much lesser level of preparation, will often leap forward. Only by helping her change this mindset will we reset the narrative.

In the area of leadership or power – the number of women globally are very low indeed.. We have about 7% women as heads of state, 6% heads of government, 23% parliamentarians, 20% of Fortune 500 company board members in 2016 etc. The slopes are too high for us to climb without some help towards the top. Quotas, unfortunately, may be a prop that we need in the initial stages. Role models and the availability of mentorship of successful women can be critical success factors that need to be plugged into the equation to achieve true parity. For example, mandates on the proportion of women in parliament and on corporate boards may be necessary for the immediate and even foreseeable future. One hopes, I hope, that quotas are a temporary necessity, but they may be a necessity for now. I myself, I describe myself as an ‘accidental president’. I never chose the world of politics and yet this world chose me. I reached that position by taking a big risk – a huge gamble against all odds.. Risk taking as well as the acceptance of this loneliness at the top are valid both for politics as well as in business.. and it is precisely this appetite for risk and self confidence that must be inculcated in the girl child and the younger women. It is not taught in business schools and lesser so in our communities where many women as still disadvantaged.

My message is simple: we need to change the mindset in our 21st century. We need to do away with this ingrained mentality that works against women’s empowerment. We need to keep daring to make the difference and we need to keep investing in the ingredients that will provide for the empowerment of empowerment. Despite much progress in many places, many glass ceilings remain, and women in leadership positions globally are still a rare commodity. Those glass ceilings have to be tackled head on – and there are many proven ways of breaking through them. Addressing the basic structural issues is a precondition – women can’t even get near the glass ceilings if they are denied equality and protection under the law and are unable to determine their own destiny. Let us all start looking out for each other. Let us create a world where that little girl out there in any village, in any city can grow up prepared and able to fulfill her potential. Let us ensure that nobody ever again will doubt that a woman can become that top engineer, doctor, or that minister, and that the she can lead because she has the education, intelligence, charisma, drive and, maybe more importantly, the confidence, compassion and caring attitude that this fragmented world needs right now and beyond. To succeed, we must dare. If we dare, we will succeed. ‘Success goes to those who dare and rarely goes to the timid.


H.E. Dr Ameenah Gurib Fakim, Former President of the Republic of Mauritius