Bridging the gender equality gap in STEM to fully transform Africa

Today we celebrate and recognize all women for their achievements without regard to divisions, and review why investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics must go hand in hand with addressing the gender equality gap. Happy International Women’s Day!

Thandiwe, 10, a 4th grade student, uses a computer at Avondale Primary School in Harare, Zimbabwe. CREDIT: GPE/Carine Durand

This is the third blog post published in 2019 as part of the collaboration between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.

This year’s theme ‘Think equal, build smart, innovate for change’ focuses on innovative ways in which we can advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure.

Of course, this day is also an opportunity to consider how to accelerate the 2030 Agenda, building momentum for the effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially goal number 5 (achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) and number 4 (ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning).

Investing in STEM must go hand in hand with addressing the gender equality gap

Over the last three decades, a global wave of market liberalization has produced an interconnected world economy that has brought about unprecedented structural changes: the abilities of nations to master and exploit science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as a key determinant of economic growth, development and security.

In Africa, STEM fields have been regarded as development drivers.

The African Union (AU) through the decision on the Science Technology and Innovation (STI) captured in the Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA), has been encouraging its members to spend 1% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development to enhance STEM innovations.

In addition, the AU has also developed the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025 (CESA 16 - 25), FAWE/AUCIEFFA commissioned Gender Equality Strategy for CESA 16-25 and the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2014 – 2024), all of which underpin science, technology and innovation as multi-function tools and enablers for achieving continental development goals.

However, if Africa’s political leadership is serious about embracing STEM for transforming societies, it must address the biting gender gap that continue to hamper equal participation among its population.

The current stock of graduates with secondary and tertiary-level skills is still highly skewed towards humanities and social sciences, while the proportion of students in STEM averages less than 25%.

According to the 2016 Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), women continue to remain under-represented among STEM graduates, where the global gender gap stands at 47%, with 30% of male students graduating from STEM subjects, in contrast to only 16% of female students.

That gap is commonly attributed to negative stereotypes and lack of role models, lowering girls’ performance and aspirations vis-à-vis science and technology. It represents a key emerging issue for gender parity, since STEM careers are projected to be some of the most sought-after in the context of the fourth industrial revolution.

The FAWE STEM model and the Microsoft DigiGirlz program

There has been a number of innovative approaches in Africa applied by both governments and civil society organizations to address this gap. One such approach is the STEM model designed by the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), that has received endorsements and technical support through partnerships with national, regional and global stakeholders, including ministries of education, corporates and United Nations agencies.

The FAWE STEM model focuses on increasing girls’ participation in STEM subjects, improving their test scores, improving instructional materials for STEM subjects to incorporate gender dimensions and encouraging girls to cultivate a positive attitude towards STEM for career progression in related fields.

The model, developed in 2005, builds the capacity of teachers to be gender responsive and enhances their positive attitudes towards girls’ abilities and participation in STEM. The model has been implemented in 13 countries in Africa (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zanzibar, and Zimbabwe) through FAWE’s national chapters. The model among other things involves establishing science camps and clubs, conducting study tours, profiling women achievers in science-based fields, exposing girls to role models and awarding female achievers in STEM subjects.

Since 2015, technology giants such as Microsoft Africa have partnered with FAWE to roll out DigiGirlz Series, a program that builds the capacity of girls towards cutting-edge coding technology. The program has seen more than 300 girls in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Zambia develop computer games and register online for continuous mentorship on coding technology.

While these bold innovations have reached a significant number of young women and girls, it is imperative that governments invest heavily in bridging the gender parity gap in STEM to ensure that all women-young and old- fully participate in the science and technology revolution.

How can African governments bridge the gender gap?

The Gender Equality Strategy for CESA 16-25 provides a detailed account on how African governments can bridge this gender gap. Furthermore, the strategy was adopted by African Ministers of Education during the Pan African Conference on Education in April 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya, and what has come to be known as The Nairobi Declaration.

Among other perspectives, the strategy encourages state and non-state actors to create an enabling environment to promote innovations for girls and young women and revise regulations and other school requirements linked to time on task, teacher/pupil ratio, class design and class size. The strategy calls for creating and developing a mindset of creative confidence in technology for girls and boys through education and training.

One way of boosting the confidence of girls in technology is ensuring that they are linked to successful female mentors in the industry, and this also applies to boys and the youth in general. It is also important to encourage both girls and boys to work cooperatively and consultatively in generating solutions even as they work towards individual aspirations. What will be key is consulting the users of technology, particularly young people, on what their needs are and where they see their respective countries and the African continent going in technology-assisted learning.

The Gender Equality Strategy for CESA 16-25 also calls for the creation of appropriate interfaces between government bodies that make policies, the university community that trains the workforce and the business community that absorbs the university graduates and translates research into improvements of economic and social sectors.

Bringing together STEM partners and stakeholders to share their experiences and good practices, especially for girls and women, during key regional forums will foster replication of the model across African countries that are at different levels in STEM development.

We therefore must create spaces for both teachers and learners, particularly girls and young women, to become creators of information, best practices and educational resources that can be shared among Africans and even with the world at large.