By Mary Hearty
Women are tremendously progressing in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). However, they remain substantially underrepresented in higher education and in STEM careers.
Available statistics show that the number of women in STEM is growing but the issue of gender parity remains elusive as men continue to outnumber women, particularly at the top levels of these professionals.
Three decades ago, the Africa Academy of Sciences’ (AAS) profile of 636 top African scientists included only 36 women. In 2019, the AAS had 10 Elected Women Fellows out of 39.
Today, about 28 percent of women are engaged in STEM careers according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), while their male counterparts dominate this field with a total of 72 percent.
Evidence from diverse bodies of research shows that social and environmental factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women in STEM, according to the AAS 2020 report on women in science.
“In many African countries, sociocultural beliefs and practices are largely connected to the construction of feminine identities, ideologies of domesticity and gender stereotypes,” the AAS 2020 report shows. “These socio-cultural values and beliefs may discourage women from pursuing STEM careers.”
Although, research on the effects of societal beliefs and the learning environment on girls’ achievements and interest in STEM shows that when teachers and parents interact with girls and support their effort, girls perform better in mathematics and are more likely to pursue math in the future.
Other studies have associated gender differences in STEM with biasness and discrimination against women. For instance, due to gender stereotyping, most people associate STEM with male and humanities and arts fields with female, and often hold negative opinions of women in masculine positions such as scientists or engineers.
This implies that people are likely to judge women to be less competent than men in the so called male jobs unless they are exceptionally successful in their work, according to the AAS 2020 report.
These persisting gender biases and stereotypes embedded within these institutions create an often-challenging work environment for women scientists.
Elizabeth Okullow, a young female agricultural scientist based in Kenya is one of the women who are greatly undermined in the field of science. According to her, this is one of her biggest limitations in career development.
“As a woman working in the field of agricultural science, sometimes I feel undermined because most consultancy services are normally given to men whom we share same knowledge and experiences in this field. Because of this, I have to work extremely hard to fit in and standout as a woman in science,” Okullow explains.
Moreover, lack of programs to recruit women scientists, coupled with an undefined career path, and the absence of mentoring programs within institutions to provide professional support, tend to make it difficult to attract and retain women scientists.
Fortunately, efforts to help close the gender equity gap in STEM in Africa have begun emerging including policies, funding, fellowship programs, and outreach programs.
According to the AAS 2020 report, many countries in Africa are involved in programs supporting Science, Technology and Innovation, which have gender-related objectives aimed at promoting women’s participation in science.
For instance, the Science Granting Council Initiative (SGCI) which comprises of 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa promotes participation of women in science as one of the key priorities.
More interventions supporting structures for women in STEM need to be anchored in law through relevant policies to safeguard gender equity in STEM both in education system and workplaces.
According to Allen Mukhwana, AAS Research Systems Manager, to bridge the gender gap for African women in science we need to ensure both policy and programmatic measures are institutionalized to safeguard gender equity in STEM especially in the education system and workplaces.
For instance, policies options that target the role of parents and the home environment provide opportunities for parents to have enough information and social support that they require to assist their children in making decisions on STEM.
Again, policy options that target international agencies should consider gender equity when awarding grants, especially research grants.
Additionally, workplace policies should ensure proper remuneration of female employees working in STEM. Employers also need to ensure that there is fair representation of women at all levels of work.
Moreover, African government policies need to advocate for and create opportunities for girls to be supported in their pursuit of STEM courses, measures like increasing the budgetary allocation to the education sector could help increase the number of women in STEM, and there need to be deliberate efforts in recruiting women in governance and decision making positions.