BANGKOK – Bias has it: science is for men not for women. Therefore, promoting girls in science begins with changing this image: shifting the tide and challenging the male-centric paradigm. But is it an ideal goal that goes against the gigantic wall of gender bias?
In a recent global report on this subject, Cracking the code: girls and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), launched by UNESCO aims to address this pressing issue. The report tries to find out not only why such gender bias is an endemic problem globally but also what can be done to end it collectively.
Studies have shown that this gender bias for men in science has little – if nothing – to do with innate abilities or sex differences. It is not that girls do not do well in Maths and Science. Quite the contrary. From the international assessment test of more than a hundred countries, TIMSS 2015, it is pointed out that 53% of the participating countries show no significant sign of differences between the performance of male and female students, while 23% of the countries show that female students perform better than male students in science achievement. This is particularly true for Asian and Arab countries.
Source: UNESCO/ W.Field
Instead of blaming the bias on innate ability, it is important to understand that these barriers are socially constructed with context specifics. These biasses are caused by social, cultural and gender norms in most countries around the world that reinforce gender preference for men in science education and subsequently career choice.
From the very young age, girls are told, again and again, that there is no place for them in science subjects and that these subjects are “masculine”. Such worldview has been reproduced and dominated girls of all age, race and colours. The report pointed out: “girls are often brought up to believe that STEM are masculine topics and that female ability in this field is innately inferior to that of males.”
Generations of girls across the globe grows up with that repetitive and damaging message that destroys their self confidence, interest and willingness to excel in science. To make matter worst, it is the prejudice of the immediate family and closed relatives that hurt the most. Young girls are discouraged because it is not culturally valued and supported by their family.
The lack of confidence plays a crucial role in re-directing girls attention away from science related subjects career. There are only 3% of ICT graduates globally who are women. Only 35% of women enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This is not to mention that women decided to leave STEM careers once they have graduated disproportionally to men creating a gender disparity and aggravating gender inequality of all levels.
Consequently, only 28% of the world’s researchers are women.
Stereotype, female identity, family’s expectation and working conditions are not conducive to female scientists.
The low participation rate of women in STEM subjects is a worry for all. Fighting gender inequality is a fight for sustainable development. It is the two sides of the same coin. Director General of UNESCO, Irene Bokova, persuasively linked the two elements together: “[The STEM gender gap] disempowers girls and women and throws a shadow over entire societies, placing a break on progress to sustainable development. In this new age of limits, when every country is seeking new sources of dynamism, no one can afford to shunt aside 50 percent of its creativity, 50 percent of its innovation.”
This has to change. But change does not come overnight – despite well meaning and idealism.
To empower girls in science requires creative and innovative effort from all level, policy commitment and societal willingness to overcome centuries of structural impediments against girls and women.
If prejudice begins from family, it is the family that needs to change. Parental beliefs and expectations must respect girls’ talents and their aspiration. Since the very young age, girls need encouragement from the family to participate in science and math related activities and overcome gender disparities.
The schools need to pay more attention to girls and cater the curriculum and learning materials to nurture girls’ interests and talents. Science teachers who are female is pivotal to this effort as a role model to inspire, mentor and nurture their confidence.
Science/ maths clubs, competitions and camps are powerful learning spaces to promote and encourage girls to be in science. As things stand, these opportunities are limited to gifted students who already are interested in STEM. Concerted efforts are needed to widen learning spaces in order to make it more equitable and inclusive for girls of wider talents.
All these efforts are piecemeal without commitment of resources from governments to promote opportunities for girls to learn science and pursue career in related fields. Legislation, financial incentives and targeted intervention are needed to produce more female science teachers and reproduce even more female science students.
Empowering girls in science might be lofty but not doing it is no longer an option.
An education approach to preventing and countering violent extremism
Last November Goodenough College and The Royal Commonwealth Society brought together four experts to discuss and debate the role that education can play in putting youth at the forefront of fostering stability, change, and a peaceful future.
The justification for putting youth at the heart of these issues is simple – youth are often seen as the most vulnerable to turn to violent acts, but what is habitually left out is their capacity to be agents for change, and their ability of bringing new and innovative ways to address the issues of today. Secondly, the youth population is only growing, currently now 60 percent of Commonwealth citizens are under the age of 30.
There is a global shift towards the recognition that robust and quality education can play a critical role in preventing and countering violent extremism. A lack of quality education, just as poverty, bad governance and the absence of rule of law, creates a ‘push factor’ and raises the tensions that can make people more susceptible to a violent extremist narrative. Robust education can, among other things, encourage critical thinking, cultural awareness, respect and understanding, tolerance and cultures of peace. These attributes help create an environment whereby young people are more likely to resist the ‘pull factors’ that can lead them to employ or support the use of violence to express their grievances.
However, education on its own is not sufficient to prevent violence. Not all education inspires peaceful environments, and not all education can be classified as CVE work. The right to education is critical, but simply promoting education is not enough to prevent terrorism. We know this as many violent extremists are well educated. Secondly, education systems can in themselves be based along class or ethnic lines creating more grievances, and curricula can be written in a way that encourages discrimination and hate.
Tackling violent extremism through education must have a three-pronged approach. We can use formal and informal education to directly discuss the issues driving violent extremism and catalyse community action and local solutions. We can develop effective curriculums and equip teachers with tools to encourage critical thinking and respect and tolerance. Finally, we can work with governments to overhaul education systems to ensure that they are inclusive environments that encourage peace and dialogue.
These are some of the approaches that education ministers will consider at their summit in Fiji next month. The Commonwealth’s joined-up approach to development work means that governments can benefit from initiatives in our CVE unit as well as key resources from our education team, such as the Education Policy Framework and the Curriculum Framework for the Sustainable Development Goals which offer step-by-step guides that ministries can use to improve and modernise education policies and curriculums.
A version of this blog was originally published in the Royal Commonwealth Society’s Commonwealth Voices December 2017
UN urges Comprehensive Approach to Sexuality Education
Close to 10 years after its first edition, a fully updated International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education published today by UNESCO advocates quality comprehensive sexuality education to promote health and well-being, respect for human rights and gender equality, and empowers children and young people to lead healthy, safe and productive lives.
“Based on the latest scientific evidence, the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education reaffirms the position of sexuality education within a framework of human rights and gender equality,” says UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “It promotes structured learning about sexuality and relationships in a manner that is positive and centred on the best interest of the young person. By outlining the essential components of effective sexuality education programmes, the Guidance enables national authorities to design comprehensive curricula that will have a positive impact on young people’s health and well-being.”
The Technical Guidance is designed to assist education policy makers in all countries design accurate and age-appropriate curricula for children and young people aged 5 – 18+.
Based on a review of the current status of sexuality education around the world and drawing on best practices in the various regions, the Guidance notably demonstrates that sexuality education:
- helps young people become more responsible in their attitude and behaviour regarding sexual and reproductive health
- is essential to combat the school dropout of girls due to early or forced marriage, teenage pregnancy and sexual and reproductive health issues
- is necessary because in some parts of the world, two out of three girls reported having no idea of what was happening to them when they began menstruating and pregnancy and childbirth complications are the second cause of death among 15 to 19-year olds
- does not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behaviour, or STI/HIV infection rates. It also presents evidence showing that abstinence-only programmes fail to prevent early sexual initiation, or reduce the frequency of sex and number of partners among the young.
The publication identifies an urgent need for quality comprehensive sexuality education to:
- provide information and guidance to young people about the transition from childhood to adulthood and the physical, social and emotional challenges they face.
- tackle the challenges posed by sexual and reproductive health issues, which are particularly difficult during puberty, including access to contraception, early pregnancy, gender-based violence, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV and AIDS
- raise awareness of HIV prevention and transmission, of which only 34 per cent of young people around the world can demonstrate accurate knowledge
- complement or counter the large body of material of variable quality that young people find on the internet, and help them face increasingly common instances of cyberbullying.
The Guidance was produced in collaboration with UNAIDS, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Romanian youth learn how to fundraise and shape a sustainable future
At YouthBank Romania young people take all the crucial decisions about how to raise funds and which sustainable development projects to back.
The programme, an offshoot of the International YouthBank, a youth-led grant-making organization, has been running for twelve years in Romania and its success can be seen by the fact students have now become leaders themselves within the programme.
One such ex-student is Programme Manager Alexandra Soare who explains how the programme works within the particular context of Romania and describes how the organization is now poised to take a new step forward.
YouthBank Romania is a non-formal education programme coordinated by the young for the young and is formed of groups of up to 20 students who meet to fund raise and choose sustainable development projects to receive the money.
Once they are signed up, the young people have training sessions on fundraising, communications and grant-making. They gain hands-on experience with real money and responsibility. Projects chosen to receive funds are as diverse as group clean-ups of a neighbourhood to sponsoring a student with cancer through treatment.
“We target a wide range of people, urban and rural, wealthy and not which means students get to interact with people they might not have come into contact with otherwise,” said Alexandra.
Diversity is built into the programme so that, for example, often excluded communities like the Roma and the Hungarian minority are actively integrated.
‘Gamifying’ the experience
“The biggest challenge we face is gaining people’s trust in a country where the NGO and Sustainable Development culture is still growing. Then we have to keep teenagers interested in the programme over the long-term. It is not that easy to convince a 16-year-old that they can raise, say, 400 euros and then at the end of the year they may see an impact. They have grown up with technology and instant results so we are trying to ‘gameify’ the process by giving small regular incentives and updates,” said Alexandra.
Another bigger challenge is to keep youth and their experiences from leaving Romania, which faces many social problems, once they are adult.
Despite all that, YouthBank has chalked up some major successes.
“Some kids wanted to mount a festival in their school yard, something that had never been done before. The idea was to fund raise to buy equipment for children in rural areas. We are now on our 8th festival proving that it is a truly sustainable idea and has become a tradition. Each year they fund raise for a different cause. This year they came up with the idea to create fools for blind people who may be visiting so that they can ‘see’ different tourist sites in braille. So there is real innovation.”
The next step is to expand. Currently the programme is running in 10 communities in Romania. The plan is to expand the network to new cities and by 2020 have 20 YouthBanks up and running around the country.
Since its implementation at a national level there have been more than one thousand YouthBank members (main beneficiaries), around 3,000grantees (secondary beneficiaries) and nearly 400,000 direct and indirect beneficiaries of implemented projects.
“We would also like to shift the emphasis from purely events-based fundraising to social entrepreneurship which will be of benefit career-wise to participants, to raise the quality of the projects themselves and increase the capacity of the trainers,” said Alexandra.
The last word goes to Diana Gherghelejiu, a member of YouthBank Sibiu.
“After 3 years as a YouthBank member I can strongly say that this programme is an extraordinary experience for every teenager that wants to do more than homework during high school years.
“The phenomena through which a group of people becomes your family, a family with a common goal, feels incredible and I do not know what I’m going to miss the most: the brainstorming sessions, the interviews or the meetings. What is clear is that there’s nothing more complex, educational, interactive and fun than being a YouthBank member.”
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