Girls Who Love Math and Science Just Got $25 Million Worth of Good News

The MasterCard Foundation announced a major investment that aims to support young African women interested in STEM-related careers.

(Photo: Courtesy

Jun 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

Growing up, Armanda Kouassi’s math and science grades were so high that it seemed a natural fit for her to pursue the science, technology, engineering, or mathematics route. But none of her female classmates was headed down that path.

“Science and technology was branded as a boy’s thing,” the 23-year-old native of Côte d’Ivoire says. “None of my teachers would tell me that I have the potential to do further studies.”

Even though Kouassi stuck to her passion and navigated her own career path throughout the years, she found few relatable role models along the way. “I had more information, and yes, there were more people to look up to,” she says. “But none of them were African.”

The MasterCard Foundation and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences are ready to change this, thanks to a $25 million partnership announced today at the World Economic Forum in South Africa. The money will be used for a number of initiatives, including scholarships for 500 students to attend one of seven AIMS centers across the continent and a math teacher training program that will reach 3,000 instructors. While scholarships will be awarded to both boys and girls, one of the core goals will be to encourage more young women to enter STEM-related fields.

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Armanda Kouassi. (Photo: Courtesy Armanda Kouassi)

According to UNESCO, female enrollment in college-level math and science in Africa is less than 25 percent. Out of 10 universities and colleges in Kenya, for instance, 41 percent of all students are female, but only 17 percent are majoring in math and sciences. While the tech industry in the U.S. also struggles with a notorious gender gap, American women in comparison receive 50 percent of the science and engineering bachelor’s degrees handed out each year (most of these degrees are in the biological sciences).

The MasterCard Foundation has been funding students from Africa to study STEM subjects at universities around the globe for the past three years, but this new partnership marks a significant increase in the number of students it hopes to reach. The move also aims to broaden African students’ opportunities to study within Africa.

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Kouassi eventually became one of those early scholarship recipients. A graduate of Arts & Métiers ParisTech in Paris, she completed her master’s degree in industrial engineering and operations research last year at the University of California, Berkeley, on a full scholarship provided by the foundation. In July, she’ll be starting an internship at IBM in Nairobi, Kenya, an opportunity she hopes will turn into a full-time job. “That would be the dream,” she says.

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But Kouassi hasn’t forgotten how difficult it was to get to where she is—and the path was a lonely one, she says. In an effort to address the gender gap for other girls, three years ago she launched FillenScience, an online organization that connects young African women interested in math and science with role models they can relate to; many attended the girls’ high schools or are from their home countries.

“I started thinking that the lack of role models and encouragement could have deterred me from my dreams, Kouassi says. “I wanted to give those other girls what I didn’t have.

FillenScience has 40 mentors who each advise four or five young women, several of whom have gone on to receive college scholarships for STEM-related degrees. For now, most mentors come from French-speaking countries such as Mauritania and Côte d’Ivoire, but Kouassi plans to expand the network to include more countries and take on a larger number of mentees. Her near-term goals include revamping the website and reaching out to more high schools across the continent. The MasterCard Foundation has also helped Kouassi find more mentors, tapping into its network of African students at schools around the world.

Although Kouassi studied in the U.S., she doesn't plan to stay there. “It’s always been very clear in my mind to go back and do something for other girls, she says.

Correction June, 5, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the school Kouassi attended. She is a graduate of Arts et Métiers ParisTech.