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More women should study STEM courses

COMMENTARY
By Kalangi Kiambati | February 11th 2021

Today, the world marks the 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day was established ‘to recognise the critical roles women and girls play in science and technology communities,’ and in order to ‘achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls’.

Despite many gender-responsive policies at the national and institutional levels, women are still under-represented in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Statistics indicate that men outnumber women globally as students, researchers, educators and workers in STEM disciplines.

A report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation indicated that although women are fairly well represented in some science-related fields such as health and environmental management, they continue to be a minority in other vital STEM fields such as energy, information technology and engineering.  

Data from the African Academy of Sciences indicates that presence of mentors and role models, supervisor support, opportunity for training as well as opportunities to network are some of the factors that facilitate women to excel in STEM fields.

On the contrary, difficulty in finding work-life balance, family responsibilities as well as the perception that women are less competitive were cited as some of the barriers women in STEM careers face.

Kenya has taken many conscious steps aimed at enhancing growth of STEM careers for men and women. In fact, STEM is at the heart of the country’s development blueprint, Vision 2030. Part of the vision’s second Medium Term Plan was establishment of the Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology to provide ‘specialised training in various engineering and science fields’.

Despite such interventions, we still have a long way to bridge the gap between available and required skills in STEM. There is need to scale up interventions aimed at entrenching the interest in STEM-oriented subjects at the primary and secondary levels of learning. Even more urgently, there is need to intensify strategies aimed at bridging the gender disparity in the enrolment and completion of STEM-related courses at the tertiary level.  

A 2018 study on why fewer Kenyan women are choosing and completing STEM courses indicated that despite the existence of educational gender policies and interventions, female participation in public universities is less than 30 per cent with gender stereotyping, sexual harassment as well as family responsibilities contributing to poor performance of female students in the STEM disciplines. In what is dubbed the ‘leaky pipeline’, the number of women pursuing STEM courses decreases as they move up the education ladder.

To encourage more women take up STEM courses, institutions should entrench role modelling and mentoring from primary to the university level. Schools should be intentional in hiring and promotion of female teachers in STEM to help motivate young learners.  

To bust the stereotype of STEM as difficult, boring courses, there is need to engage young learners in a fun way, to help build their interest in the subjects from an early age. Continuous training of women teachers of STEM will also help build capacity for qualified females to deliver content professionally and competently.

Similar careers

In addition, there is need to organise more STEM competitions for female students at the sub-county, county and national levels to recognise outstanding females and inspire more girls to pursue STEM courses.

Such competitions will also expose girls to trailblazers in the technology and science disciplines, further busting the myth that STEM-related disciplines are a reserve for boys. Representation of women in STEM careers is one powerful way to mentor those interested in pursuing similar careers.

As Kenya continues to implement the third Medium Term Plan in the final move towards vision 2030, there is need to strengthen all the interventions aimed at addressing the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon to ensure that as many girls as are interested in STEM are facilitated to pursue the courses to completion.

The business community should then encourage such women to take up roles that position them as mentors to future women in STEM.

Dr Kiambati is a Communications lecturer and trainer, Kenyatta University

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