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Women's Science Day: Leveling the STEM playing field

February 11, 2018

Today, the UN observes the third celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

It is no secret that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are male-dominated arenas. Globally, women account for the majority of students at the bachelors and masters levels, yet they only represent 35% of higher education STEM students. These statistics reflect the reality of women abandoning STEM degrees and careers at a much higher rate than their male counterparts, emphasizing the isolation those that remain may experience in this line of work.

The reasons behind the gender gap in STEM are systemic and complex. These include gender-based stereotypes, lack of same-sex role models, societal expectations, and differentiated treatment in schools and households. All of these factors can cause girls and women to prefer other subjects and gradually lose confidence in their capability to excel in STEM areas.

It often begins in the classroom. A recent review conducted by UNESCO in 78 countries found that many of the learning materials used in schools conveyed gender bias. For example, at the primary-school level in India, 50% of illustrations in mathematics and science textbooks portrayed male characters, in contrast to only 6% female ones.

Toy aisles are another key indicator of this gap. Despite studies showing that gender-coded toys can be unfavorable to a child’s development, the pink and blue divide still dominates many toy stores. STEM-focused toys are three times more likely to be marketed to boys, while toys marketed to either sex promote gender roles and limit the ingenuity and personal exploration of children. This can have an impact on their future skills sets and career aspirations.

Increased participation of girls and women in STEM fields is a matter of equal access to opportunities. Excluding women also decreases the diversity of STEM research perspectives and cuts the talent pool in half. Therefore, progress made in these fields and overall productivity are slowed down, which ultimately affects us all.  This impact is already being felt. In 2017, the European Commission stated that by 2020, the EU could face a shortage of 900,000 workers trained in information and communications technology. The fact remains that countries need women in STEM to stay competitive and meet their development needs.

Several governments civil society actors are working to bridge the gap. Based in Abuja, Nigeria, The Visiola Foundation works to encourage marginalized African youth to pursue STEM careers by providing scholarships, mentorship, and training. Their programs cater to girls and young women, and focus on building their confidence and sparking their interest in STEM. VF provides scholarships for girls from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend top African universities. The foundation also runs yearly STEM summer camps, coding boot camps, and after-school STEM clubs, where they currently work with 500 girls, aged 11 to 17.

At the policy level, Malaysia leads the way in gender-responsive education. Its strong emphasis on gender parity in STEM has shown outstanding results. The country saw an increase in female researchers from 35.8% in 2004 to 49.9% in 2012. In partnership with the International Bureau of Education, its Ministry of Education recently developed a set of manuals to support governments, schools, and teachers in encouraging girls to participate in STEM areas. This resource pack is available online and is free of cost.

On another front, the UK parent-led campaign, Let Toys Be Toys, advocates for gender-neutral toy store aisles. This initiative grew out of an online thread where parents expressed their frustration over the increase of gender-coded toy marketing. They have so far succeeded in convincing fourteen UK retailers to make changes in their aisles, with several toy companies joining the movement. Some are not only leaving gender-coded marketing behind, but also creating toys that foster collaboration and play between boys and girls, while encouraging their development of STEM skills.

Governments, foundations, and concerned parents should not be the only ones raising awareness of this issue. On today’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, take a moment to reflect: What actions can we all take to level the playing field? Is it by lifting up non-stereotypical role models in the workplace? Or by using more inclusive language? And will we choose to buy toys that reinforce divides or toys that uplift and create connectedness amongst children?

The answers will vary, but the impact of creating small changes cannot be underestimated. Leveling the STEM playing field requires a collaborative effort and concerns us all. Together, we can shape a world where girls and boys thrive regardless of their gender.