Patriarchy, lack of professional support and programmes to recruit women scientists, coupled with backward societal beliefs and poor implementation of gender equality policies are some of the major factors that hinder women to pursue career STEM.
These are some of the main findings of the survey conducted by the African Academy of Sciences in April this year titled: “Factors which contribute to or inhibit women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in Africa’.
The study’s main objectives were: to identify the challenges and opportunities for women in STEM in Africa, document experiences of women in STEM and recommend ways of closing gaps.
It was given impetus by the UN’s ambitious programme for Sustainable Development Goals, which member countries have to accomplish before 2030. Part of this vision is to ensure innovation; science and technology are the main drivers of success and development agenda.
Unfortunately, according to the study, most countries across the globe are not tapping on the potential of all its populations, particularly girls and women, in innovation, science and technology initiatives. Africa, noted the study, lags its global counterparts in terms of advancing STEM among its women. Although most countries attempts to recruit and retain more women in STEM, gender disparities still remain stubbornly high.
“In elementary, middle, and high school, girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, and about as many girls as boys leave high school prepared to pursue science and engineering majors in college,” the study noted.
However, fewer women than men pursue these majors, for instance, among the first-year college students; women are much less likely than men to say that they intend to major in STEM, the study added.
It further noted that one of the common social factors that accounts for fewer women in science; innovation and technology is patriarchy. The study said children are socialised and exposed early on in their lives to learn about and practise gendered roles and as a result of this girls are oriented to be communal and focus on children and family.
On the contrary, said the report, “masculine gender role stereotypes orient boys to acquire mastery, skills and competence, explore the physical world, figure out how things work, and are likely to be involved in activities that emphasise problem solving, status, and financial gain”.
It noted that “in many African countries, socio-cultural beliefs and practices largely connected to the construction of feminine identities, ideologies of domesticity and gender stereotypes may exclude girls from pursuing science subjects.”
Furthermore, the report pointed out that socio-cultural norms and gendered expectations about the role of females in society significantly affect girls’ educational opportunities, learning outcomes and decisions about study and work.
Over two thirds (72%) of all respondents, said the study, agreed that majority of girls prefer to study arts subjects and the softer sciences such as biology and geography while 76% agreed that discrimination of women in decision making positions may discourage women from pursuing STEM careers. Seventy three percent agreed that hegemonic masculinity influenced by socio-cultural values and beliefs impacted women in STEM, it added.
Some of the more negative factors that prevent women to succeed and develop interest in the STEM, according to the study, include:
- difficulty in securing positions in the same geographical area as their partners and the perception that women are perceived less competitive.
- most university departments and research institutes in many African are often led by men who also occupy key leadership positions of responsibility.
- persisting gender biases and stereotypes embedded within these institutions create an often-challenging work environment for women scientists and
- lack of programmes to recruit women scientists, coupled with an undefined career path, and the absence of mentoring programmes within institutions to provide professional support, tend to make it difficult to attract and retain women scientists.
The study also highlighted some positive influences. For instance, when teachers and parents interact with and support their girls, they tend to perform better in mathematics and are more likely to pursue math in the future. It said that girls’ positive self-assessment of their ability to succeed in STEM can play a significant role in whether they get enrolled for STEM courses or not.
The study noted that the choice to pursue STEM related careers was further influenced by other women working in STEM who acted as role models. Additionally, it said at the individual level, personal capabilities and academic preparation influence the choice of whether women pursue STEM related careers or not. The choice to take STEM subjects or careers is also influenced by other women working in STEM who acted as role models.
It calls for a “multipronged approach that addresses challenges that women face in their quest to pursue STEM courses and succeed while in practice”. It also recommended that “policy and programmatic measures should be institutionalised to safeguard gender equity in STEM both in the education system and work places”.