Pharo Foundation as a Catalyst: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Male-Dominated Industries

Female empowerment is not one of Pharo Foundation’s three explicit missions, yet it certainly feeds into them. If we look at our education mission of empowering the next generation, quite simply 50% of it is achieved via the provision of life-changing educational opportunities to girls. Similarly, our productivity mission cannot be achieved when 50% of the potential labour force is underutilised or even worse, ignored.

In Uganda, a recent study depicted that women working in male-dominated sectors make three times as much as those working in traditionally "women's sectors".  The idea of a man's world and the professions typically associated with men are shaped by cultural, social, and historical conditions in African settings. However, as society continues to advance, it is crucial to recognise and embrace the contributions of women in various industries. As parts of our work within education and to upskill local communities in Africa, Pharo Foundation looks to empower women from an early age and encourage them to pursue any career they want. This includes industries traditionally dominated by men, such as science and technology, and specific practical careers, like construction, electrical and plumbing.

We recognise that only working within “traditional careers” is limiting for both men and women. By fostering a culture of inclusivity and equal opportunities, we are actively encouraging women to explore industries that have historically been perceived as male centric. By breaking down these barriers and embracing diversity, Pharo Foundation is creating an environment where women can thrive and excel in different fields.

Traditional gender roles and expectations play a role, with household responsibilities often being prioritised over academic pursuits and achievements. In many of the areas we operate in, it is the norm for young girls to leave school early to help with household duties. This results in girls not finishing school and lacking the literacy skills, which would help them find employment in the future. At Pharo, we try to provide equal opportunities to our students. In Ethiopia, our girls boarding school, Pharo School Homosha, is considered an institution of academic excellence. It allows girls from disadvantaged groups in rural Benishangul-Gumuz to attend high school tuition-free. There, they stay on campus and live together to focus on their studies. The teachers are incredibly supportive, and we encourage the girls who are interested to go into STEM studies.

Mentorship is crucial in empowering women to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated industries. Pharo Foundation recognises the importance of providing guidance and support to women as they navigate the complexities of these industries. Through mentorship, we connect our girls with experienced individuals in these fields, providing valuable insights, advice, and opportunities for growth. In Ethiopia, Homosha girls' school recently invited Fiker Kassaye, a female pilot from Ethiopian Airlines, to mentor the young female students during their graduation ceremony. She encouraged them to follow their aspirations and inspired them by sharing her experiences and tales.

Yet providing our students with female role models can only have so much impact, if they look at their homes and their own mothers have lost the agency that educational opportunities can buy. Hence Pharo Foundation has implemented a Mothers' Literacy Program in Somaliland to aid mothers in finding career opportunities and helping their children study. Those who graduate from the Mothers’ Literacy Program and want more applied knowledge then move on to a Skills Training Program, where they improve their skills in sewing for instance. On July 6th, 2023, our 2nd cohort of Mothers Literacy Program (200 participants) and 1st cohort of Skills Training Program (45 participants) successfully completed their programs and graduated. This year, the program’s enrolment increased by 24%. This shows the tremendous interest in the program coming from the community, where many women face various obstacles that hinder their ability to learn or pursue education. Currently, the program has 360 participants enrolled in the Mothers Literacy Program and 160 participants enrolled in the Skills Program, expected to graduate in June 2024. By focusing on mothers, Pharo Foundation recognises that education is a family affair and that empowering women benefits the entire family. This initiative not only enhances women's economic opportunities but also empowers them to become agents of change in their communities, a step towards carving a new path.

Due to the long-standing male dominance in science and technology, women have limited chances and representation in STEM disciplines. Pharo Foundation understands how important it is to encourage girls to seek professions in STEM fields. By integrating STEM subjects into their educational programs, Pharo Foundation creates an environment that piques girls' curiosity and fosters a passion for these fields. By exposing girls to STEM at a young age, Pharo Foundation is breaking stereotypes and paving the way for women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. For example, in the case of Assosa primary and secondary school, our STEM focus has paid off as girls here are excelling in the subject area and even gaining national recognition by winning STEM competitions. Pharo School girls becoming role models to fellow pupils is the greatest catalyst of all, above and beyond the role of external role models. 

Furthermore, in Somaliland, we have a vocational training programme which enables young people to obtain practical skills to help them find jobs. The skills training is focused on traditionally male-dominated industries such as the electrical industry, plumbing, carpentry, construction and painting. However, we have always encouraged women to join our training, and last year we had three women graduate from our TVET programme. Indeed, in recent years, we have seen the number of women participants increase, with 20 female participants registering for the electrical and solar installation training in August 2023. However, our programs have to be organic and responsive to our communities, hence we remain open to feedback from the women joining our courses. In response to some women expressing concerns about the physically demanding nature of the skills involved, we made the decision to introduce an Information and Communication Technology course and a fashion design course specifically designed for female candidates in 2024. By expanding our training offerings, we aim to provide alternative options that align with female interests and abilities whilst still encouraging female participants to also engage in our existing TVET training programs. 

Even though we have a long way to go to empower women to enjoy and explore traditionally male-dominated industries, we are making baby steps and efforts at the Foundation to empower women. By challenging gender stereotypes, implementing mentorship programmes, promoting mothers' literacy, and integrating STEM subjects into their educational programmes, Pharo Foundation is creating a supportive and inclusive environment for women to thrive. By breaking down barriers and fostering a culture of equal opportunities, we are paving the way for women to carve a new path and redefine what it means to be a successful professional.