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The International Day of Women and Girls in Science calls for Africa to address the gender gap in STEM fields
Women are at risk of losing out on today’s and tomorrow’s best job opportunities
The future of our continent depends upon the full utilization of the human capital available to us; and women account for half of its population.
Throughout the world, and particularly in Africa, there is a stark under-representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) professions.
The leaky pipeline of women and girls begins as they start and progress through their schooling and enter into science and technology-based careers. According to UNESCO estimates, only 30% of researchers in sub-Saharan Africa are women, with the gender gap especially apparent in disciplines such as mathematics, engineering and computer science1. Studies also indicate that women in STEM are paid less, publish less and do not progress as far in their careers compared to their male counterparts. This is a loss for the science, technology and innovation field - and for society.
To advance as a continent, we must increase the enrollment of women and girls in STEM and scale approaches to enhance their attraction to and retention in the sector.
From my experience, one of the major reasons my female classmates opted out of STEM subjects in school is that many of them did not consider STEM professions compatible with their gender.
One could understand why. Two predominant stereotypes reinforced over the years were that ‘boys are better at math and science than girls’ and ‘science and engineering careers are masculine domains’. Such explicit gender stereotypes that communicate that STEM studies and careers are male-dominated, negatively affect girls’ interest, engagement and achievement in these areas.
This is sad, and this should change.
Africa needs to showcase more female role models succeeding in male-dominated spaces that our daughters and sons can look up to.
Science, technology and innovation are pegged to be key drivers of Africa’s industrialization. But as new roles in STEM fields continue to outpace the rate at which women are currently entering those jobs, women are at risk of losing out on today’s and tomorrow’s best job opportunities.
The World Economic Forum estimates that the fourth industrial revolution will present a total gain of two million jobs in STEM-related fields (that women are particularly at risk of losing out on) and a loss of 4.7 million jobs concentrated in routine white collar office functions, such as office and administrative roles (predominantly held by women). There is therefore an urgent economic incentive to include women more fully into the science and technology workforce and to skill our young girls for a future that is quickly catching up with us.
This is no longer perceived as a social issue alone, but also as a business issue -costing women, companies and ultimately, entire economies. Addressing these gaps will ultimately be a determinant of Africa’s future economic prospects.
While progress has been made, Africa must step up
I am glad to work at the African Development Bank, an institution which recognizes the importance of investing in Africa’s human capital. Between 2005 and 2017, the Bank invested $2 billion in 70 education projects, with a primary focus on science and technology.
The major goal here was to speed up the enrolment of girls in STEM through affirmative action measures. Such measures included providing scholarships and gender-sensitive educational services, designed to act as direct incentives to encourage girls to go to school, undergo training, opt for relevant research areas and disciplines, and succeed in their social and productive lives in general.
Let me offer a few examples of medium to long-term approaches that we can adopt to leverage science and technology as a tool for women’s socio-economic empowerment.
First, we should create opportunities for girls to complete basic education. Second, we must target reforms in the education system that encourage girl’s interaction with science and technology from a young age and encourage their interest in STEM as they transition through every level of schooling. Third, we must make science, technology and innovation more attractive and relevant for women and girls. Finally and I would proffer, most importantly, we must change social norms and attitudes about women and girl’s participation in ‘male dominated’ or ‘technical roles’.
Africa cannot afford to miss the opportunities presented by the fourth industrial revolution. Unleashing the full potential of science, technology and innovation as a driver of Africa’s growth and development will require gender equality in this field.
To succeed, we need to educate our women, encourage their participation and retention in the sector, mainstream gender in our science, technology and innovation (and education) policies, scale women’s networks, role model and mentorship programs, as well as address issues of unconscious bias and the ‘maternal wall/glass ceiling’ in the workplace.
This will require concerted efforts and greater resources from governments, private sector, civil society and development partners.
Africa is ready and Africa is waiting for this change.
Gloria Muhoro is a Gender Specialist and leads the technology innovation work in the African Development Bank’s Gender, Women and Civil Society Department.
1see for example UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 or the UIS Women in Science visualization