Without a huge investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, Africa will not achieve the goals the African Union has laid out in her 2063 agenda. Indeed, given the complexity facing the developing world, economic growth, and improvements in the standard of living there will continue to rely on innovations and technological breakthroughs.
Moreover, such revolutions can only happen for Africa if there is active participation in STEM at all levels of education—especially for girls. Despite the fact that women comprise half the population, they are grossly underrepresented in STEM careers. In sub-Saharan Africa, between a mere 18 to 31 percent of science researchers are women, compared to 49 percent in Southeast Europe and in the Caribbean; 44 percent in Central Asia and Latin America; and 37 percent in the Arab States. In Nigeria specifically, women represent between 17 and 20 percent of science researchers. Notably, at the primary school-level, girls perform as well as or even better than boys globally according to the reports of PISA and TIMSS on mathematics and science performance; however, between only 3 and 7 percent of girls who attend higher education actually study STEM-related courses when they get there. More specifically, 3 percent of girls in higher education are enrolled in ICT, compared to 8 percent of boys. Similarly, 7 percent of girls enroll in engineering and construction courses compared with 22 percent of boys who enrolled for the same fields of study.
Why is female participation in STEM important?
Getting girls and women into STEM is not only a matter of human rights but also makes economic sense. Adopting diversity and gender inclusion in STEM is critical for increasing creativity, innovation, gender-sensitive perspective for products, and productivity, considering that women make up half of the world’s population.
The STEM pipeline for girls is leaky, so efforts should be placed on the formative years where habits and traits are formed early so that girls can have a solid foundation in STEM.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only hindered overall STEM education, but particularly exacerbated the already-wide gender gap in those subjects. The switch to digital platforms hindered learning for those without access to such tools given the region’s digital divide. Teachers also struggled with the use of technology for online lesson delivery, and they often end up just replicating their physical classrooms on online platforms. The impact on STEM education has been colossal given the loss of the requisite hands-on activities in such subjects. This is because for girls, the traditional mode of learning—without authentic learning experiences demystifying STEM concepts—has neither been effective nor motivating.
More girls and women into STEM! How?
Research has already identified specific strategies and tools for boosting girl child involvement in STEM. Such policies include:
- Use role models. Girls between the ages of 8 and 16 learn better in a collaborative and non-competitive way. They can be inspired by connecting with female role models in STEM careers who can serve as both mentors and examples of success stories. Girls in 8th and 9th grade who are discovering their career interests and are at the very beginning of their career paths are influenced by role models who served as catalysts for young girls. Indeed, research shows that a role model approach can encourage and help young girls and women to excel in science.
- Create learning resources that portray the girl child in STEM, among others. Currently, most textbooks present a biased curriculum with content showcasing more male scientists, and only showing girls in non-STEM careers such as secretaries or only as nurses in the medical field. More demonstrated representation of women in STEM-related careers allows and encourages girls to envision themselves in such roles.
- Encourage interest in STEM early in education. Early intervention is key to closing the gender gap in STEM as boys are encouraged very early to pursue careers in STEM while girls are not. This problem is not unique to Africa. In addition, most current strategies for increasing STEM participation focus on higher education when girls are already lagging behind in this field or not represented at all. As girls progress through the school system, their numbers in STEM classes fall. In other words, the STEM pipeline for girls is leaky, so efforts should be placed on the formative years where habits and traits are formed early so that girls can have a solid foundation in STEM.
- Ensure equal access to basic education. Girls can only learn when they are in school. However, no country in Africa has achieved gender parity in both primary and secondary schools. Moreover, not only should girls have access to basic education, they must be able to access digital literacy—meaning the government must bridge the digital divide early in their education, during primary school. Moreover, the pandemic further magnified the digital divide that already existed. In fact, it actually enhanced stereotypes as more boys had access to technologies and girls were made to do more house chores during this time. Providing digital devices for every girl child should be a top priority for governments in the wake of COVID-19 and in case of future, similar epidemics.
- Better equip teachers. African policymakers must prioritize building the capacity of teachers and STEM teachers in particular. They need to be intentionally equipped with strategies that encourage collaboration rather than competition, peer teaching, hands-on activities, mentoring by role models—whether online or in person. More specifically, teachers need to be trained in using tools like learning packages, simulations, games, and storytelling to more effectively engage learners. These curriculum resources, including textbooks, should come with content that showcase females in various fields.
- Support a shift in classroom dynamics. Finally, STEM education reforms should include a shift in classroom dynamics so that teachers can be gender responsive and gender sensitive. At the moment, teachers are too often prone to encourage boys more than girls in science classes and assign less-taxing roles to girls that are more domestic in nature, thus encouraging gender stereotypes.
Innovative young thinkers and entrepreneurs emerging from Africa are not only changing the continent, but the world—but not nearly enough of them are women.
Innovative young thinkers and entrepreneurs emerging from Africa are not only changing the continent, but the world—but not nearly enough of them are women. Given the increased demand for STEM knowledge in a post-COVID world and education losses caused by the pandemic, support for girls in STEM education has never been more pressing. Indeed, the demographic makeup of girls and women in Africa must be intentionally harnessed to position Africa as the technology hub for the future.