Getting More Women in ScienceMarch 21st, 2022
With so few women represented in science and related fields, it is no wonder why more girls aren’t attracted to these disciplines. But why are women so under-represented in science to begin with? 21-year old Nigerian correspondent Precious Obiabunmo argues that a big part of the issue is related to gender stereotypes and biases. She examines what can be done to change that and other factors causing women to shy away from science.
“More than ever today, the world needs science and science needs women.” – Irina Bokova
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) highlights that women make up only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college. In fact, its “Why So Few” report further states that: “Women’s representation in science and engineering declines further at the graduate level and yet again in the transition to the workplace.” But what accounts for the gender gap in STEM fields and what can be done to get more women and girls excited about participating in these disciplines?
Growing up, Rita Oluchi Orji did not have access to a computer. Despite this, she was admitted to study Computer Science at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria and graduated top of her class with First Class Honours. Today, she’s a Canada Research Chair in Persuasive Technology and an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Computer Science.
Tebello Nyokong, a South African chemist and professor at Rhodes University, learnt about science by observing the wildlife while she worked as an eight-year-old caring for sheep. When she wanted to pursue a science course, she was told it was too hard. Thankfully, she did not let that discouragement stop her from following her passion and two years before her matric year, she switched to the path of science.
Ncumisa Jilata was fortunate to have a teacher whose approach to biology lessons fascinated her enough to steer her from a path in accounting to science. This move led her to become one of just five black female neurosurgeons in South Africa at the age of 29.
These are just a few of the many inspiring stories of women who have done magnificently well in the field of science. However, one cannot shake off the crippling gender stereotypes and biases they had to surmount to be who they are today.
Science is not gender specific. There is no research that indicates that boys are more capable than girls of learning science or math. But our own biases, whether implicit (unconscious) or explicit (conscious), perpetuate these myths.
For instance, employers with gender bias are more likely to hire a man over a woman – implicit bias; and women who tell themselves that they will have to work twice as hard as men to prove their competence tend to drop out of STEM fields – explicit bias. So, both men and women need to check their bias. We need to be aware of how it shapes our actions and how we treat others.
These actions can be curbed by a shift in mindset as well as making a concerted effort to have more women at every level of an organization in all spheres. Representation is extremely important and women and girls need visible role models. This representation can help shift the biases that women are not as good as men in particular fields, including STEM.
Young girls and women also need to learn to be confident in their abilities and skills. In many cases, it will come down to how they are taught. If Jilata’s teacher hadn’t taught biology in a fascinating way, she might not have been interested in switching paths. STEM educators should approach science in a fun and engaging manner. Support should start from childhood and girls’ participation in special programmes should be encouraged. Finally, to retain more women in STEM fields, there should be more work flexibility, gender-balanced external review, as well as equal pay and access to research grants.
Photo Credits: Canva
About Precious Obiabunmo: My interests lie in literacy, youth and women empowerment. My love for reading and writing led me into creating a blog and write for other brands. I also have a podcast where I share tips and experiences that will help campus students launch their careers. Currently, I work as a content creator and social media manager. I hope to head the Communications team of a tech startup someday.