Last week, I attended the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the invitation of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). The invitation came about after the Knowledge Gateway for Women's Economic Empowerment called for contributions of concrete, innovative and promising actions initiated since March 2011 that have been effective at addressing women's lack of access to, and their participation and leadership in, the science and technology fields. One of my colleagues at Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) made a contribution demonstrating our work with the Young Girls Science & Health Tele-Academy in Nigeria.
The community-centric nature of the Tele-Academy, which operates as a platform to inspire a passion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) in girls, must have sparked the interest of the UN. I was humbled and honored to be asked to be a delegate on a panel addressing women's and girls' equal access and participation in STEM. Representatives of Member States, UN entities, and accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all over the world were also invited to attend. I shared the panel with representatives from Girls Who Code, the Academy for Software Engineering and the Latin American School of Social Sciences.
My contribution, "Community: a Focal Point to Inspire Passion for STEM Education in Girls," focused on using concrete the needs and realities of girls' lives to ignite an interest for STEM subjects, especially in developing countries. In Nigeria, for instance, most students are first introduced to science and math through classroom lectures where the teachers dictate facts and information. Unfortunately, this method of teaching does not engage students' interests. Curricular materials often fail to develop the link between STEM subjects and other subjects in which girls are naturally interested. In our last cohort, the girls enrolled in the program focused on the prevention, treatment and cure of breast cancer. Through research, documentation and dissemination of information related to this disease, 56 percent of the girls that graduated from the program reported that they wanted to pursue a career in medicine while the other 44 percent wanted to pursue a career in engineering (Youth for Technology Foundation). Our goal is to guide the girls through their youthful years and ensure that they follow through with their choice to pursue a career in a STEM field. This will greatly increase their earning potential and give them the chance to pull themselves out of systemic poverty.
In many societies, a girl's choice to study science is seen as making her appear less feminine. In situations where a girl's material circumstances, as well as those of her family, are tied to her marriage prospects, the implications of challenging the dominant construction of her femininity are impossible to ignore. Cultural biases hold that science is a male domain and that girls are not as capable as boys when it comes to learning about it (Ekine, Abay. Enhancing Girls' Participation in Science in Nigeria). I refer to this as the masculinity of STEM.
There are 10.5 million children not enrolled in school in Nigeria (Education for All Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO June 2013) , the highest amount of any nation in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of the children who are enrolled in primary school, 47 percent are girls. Girls' enrollment declines to 44 percent as they go from the primary school level to the junior secondary school level (Ekine, Abay. Enhancing Girls' Participation in Science in Nigeria). The quality of education for these girls, and for all children, at this stage of their development is of great consequence. It serves as a pull factor that will bring children to and keep them in school. If children are to be acculturated to scientific thinking and behavior even before they attain primary school age, those individuals who have the biggest hand in raising them must be involved. These are women.
Some recommendations I put forth to Governments included the following:
- Governments can support the creation of a STEM Teachers Corps, similar to the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), in Nigeria. The STEM Teachers Corps would place female teachers that studied STEM education at the teaching level and are graduating from a teacher education college or a university. Emphasis should be on ensuring that these teachers are placed on teaching assignments during their service year that help raise the profile of the STEM profession, strengthen STEM education and support collaboration with their peers.
- Governments can create a mission-driven, open data agency for education ("OPEN-ED") that reports up through the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Women's Affairs & Social Development. OPEN-ED should support a data-driven approach to improve data quality, ease of enrollment, science performance for girls, and the distribution of science teachers throughout the country.
- Science should be taught in a way that emphasizes social and societal connections early in life through the use of indigenous storytelling and by highlighting the immense contributions of women in this area.
- Men have a role to play in supporting women and girls in STEM, particularly in the area of strengthening partnerships in the private sector. Since a higher percentage of men than women are working in STEM careers in the private sector, they can and should be internal advocates for women by encouraging more female STEM hires.
It was interesting to hear from the international delegates as they shed light on their countries' progress in STEM education The delegate from Belarus explained how their government is faced with a different type of challenge: in Belarus, there are far more educated women than educated men, but there is still gender discrimination when it comes to certain types of formal jobs. The delegate from Ecuador shared how their government has established specialized schools in rural areas, called "millennium schools," that are equipped with technology designed to encourage full participation from students, especially girls, in the STEM fields. The delegate from Gambia discussed the progress their government had made in reaching 89 percent gender parity between boys and girl at the primary school level, but also warned of the increased fear among the population concerning the risks of technology access, including cybercrime and young people's access to pornography.
The general consensus was that while there has been progress, it has been slow and that women and girls must be included in the future of our society.
Increased STEM education for girls will help produce the capable, flexible workforce needed to compete in today's marketplace. It will strengthen democracy by preparing all citizens to make informed choices in an increasingly technological world. It will create scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians who will design and innovate the breakthrough solutions, products and industries of the 21st century.
Gender equality is not just a development initiative. Excluding 69 million women and girls in Nigeria (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Statistics Division, Population and Vital Statistics, Report, 6) from participation and high achievement in STEM subjects is a tremendous waste of human potential and means that opportunities to access careers in one of the region's fastest growing fields are extremely limited. Gender equality is about fundamental human rights and dignity and is essential to build more just and inclusive societies. If it is tightly aligned with national development strategies, scientific education for girls and women can become a driving force for a developing nation's renaissance.