Updated: Feb 6, 2021
by Gilbert Nakweya
On 11 February, we're celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science and calling on everyone to smash stereotypes, defy gender biases and defeat discrimination that holds women and girls back in STEM fields. The business community, science and research institutions have a stake in bridging the gender gap.
Photo courtesy of Javier Trueba
★ Gender gaps in STEM persist in low and middle income countries
★ Study of qualitative factors that hold up women and girls in STEM is needed to close gender gaps
★ An expert says mainstreaming gender sensitivity in teaching can help close gender gaps in STEM
On 11 February, we are celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science and calling on everyone to smash stereotypes, defy gender biases and defeat discrimination that hold women and girls back in STEM fields. Many development actors consider Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) as a panacea for transforming livelihoods and fostering sustainable development, especially in low to middle income countries.
From governments to the public sector, these actors believe that STEM education is important not only for the workforce, but also to find solutions to challenges such as climate change and the burden of disease through STEM research and innovation.
According to World Bank researchers, “the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM gets a lot of attention, but the data on access to, and quality of, education shows that the story is more nuanced” (Rubiano-Matulevich et al.,2019).
Girls perform as well as boys at primary school in science and mathematics, and outshine them at the secondary level in the same subjects according to a study led by the World Bank.
Gender gaps persist
However, serious gender gaps in STEM education begin to manifest in tertiary education.
The World Bank estimates that more women are enrolled than men in universities and there are more women graduating than men globally. But Sub-Saharan Africa falls out of this trend as women are less likely to be enrolled with 8 percent against 11 percent for men.
Additionally, only 7 percent of women choose to study engineering, manufacturing and construction, compared to 22 percent of men. Of the students pursuing careers in information, communication and technology fields, 28 percent are women and 72 percent are men.
According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women (Women in Science, 2019). Although the low number of women publishing in STEM and making little progress in their careers has been confirmed by many studies, UNESCO highlights that “there is very little data at the international or even country level showing the extent of these disparities”. Even in Agriculture, only 25 percent of researchers are women, says Jemima Njuki, programme officer based at Nairobi office of Canada’s International Development Research Center. “This is a problem because women remain underrepresented in various fields. We can not develop the continent when we leave half of the population behind. It does not make sense,” says Njuki.
Quantity versus Quality
Whereas some development actors are concerned with increasing the number of women and girls in STEM, other actors believe that there is a need to look beyond hard numbers and study the qualitative factors that hamper women and girls from pursuing STEM courses. This, they say, will help to truly close the gender gap in STEM.
But Njuki says that gender parity witnessed at most primary schools in both enrollment and completion is a remarkable achievement of recent times.
The gender gaps that remain, she says, are modest compared to 20 years ago. And when it comes to academic performance, evidence shows that girls often do as well as, or better than, boys in science and mathematics.
Photo courtesy of Yogendra Singh
“We have a problem of girls transition mainly due to social and cultural barriers that stop women and girls from continuing with education,” says Njuki citing the largest gender gap at lower secondary level with 46 percent of boys completing compared to 41 percent of girls.
According to Njuki, there is an urgent need to address the social and cultural barriers that are stopping women and girls from transitioning to secondary schools and to university. “We also need to change the perception of sciences as a male, or masculine domains to encourage more women and girls,” she adds.
A critical look at the quality of teaching, says Njuki, is key to encouraging both boys and girls to pursue careers of their choice. To turn the trend around, she says that teaching should encompass gender sensitive teaching methods that will motivate both boys and girls and create equal chances for them to pursue STEM courses.
Speaking to Paeradigms in an exclusive interview, Njuki says that gender sensitivity is critical in teaching STEM subjects in schools. “It is still not unusual for people and even teachers to frown upon girls who show interest in science and very often they try to steer them into more ‘appropriate’ careers,” adds Njuki, pointing out that children cannot become what they do not see and “we need role models to encourage young girls in science”.
Njuki also calls for improved infrastructure and equipment in basic education schools especially in rural areas and in informal settlements to help build and cultivate a culture of science early on. Providing information on different career paths and financial resources through scholarships are critical to encourage girls to pursue STEM courses.
Rubiano-Matulevich, E., Hammond, A., Beegle, K., Krishna Kumaraswamy, S., & Rivera, S. (2019, February 11). Improving the pathway from school to STEM careers for girls and women. World Bank Blogs. Retrieved from https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/improving-pathway-school-stem-careers-girls-and-women
Women in Science. (2019, April 15). UNESCO Institute of Statistics. Retrieved from http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/women-science