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.

girlscrackthecode

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.

Rattana Lao

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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