Let us address root causes of gender inequalities in the science arena

The uptake of STEM-related careers remains low among female youths. [iStockphoto]

On Feb 11, the 9th International Day of Women and Girls in Science was marked under the theme ‘Women and girls in science leadership - a new era for sustainability’.

Specifically, this year’s focus was on ‘women's leadership in achieving the three pillars of sustainable development, namely economic prosperity, social justice, and environmental integrity’.

It is important to note that despite concerted efforts by governments and development partners, the uptake of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-related careers still remains low among female youths.

Evidence shows that female youth are either not choosing STEM fields, or are leaving them upon graduation, mostly due to challenges stemming from, among others, stereotypical gender roles, and ignorance of STEM-related career options. 

Many experts agree that societal challenges can only adequately and sustainably be addressed through thorough root-cause analyses in order to prescribe pragmatic solutions.

Gender inequalities in science-related fields are caused by underlying socio-cultural and other norms that, besides prohibiting access to resources, discourage young girls from pursuing STEM courses.

Many of these prohibitive norms get entrenched over time and need consistent efforts to unlearn. Looking beyond superficial causes of the inequalities requires an overhaul of a society’s belief systems and the use of role models to demystify the place of women and girls in science. This way, young girls can be encouraged to shun harmful gender stereotypes and embrace otherwise ‘masculine’ careers.

Besides, excellence in STEM requires concentration and focus. This can only be achieved when learners have proper support from teachers, parents and peers. This support is even more critical for female youth who, in many societies, are engaged in care work, leaving them little time to concentrate on school work. Relieving young girls of the burden of care work can go a long way in providing a level playing ground in the pursuit of science-related careers.

In Kenya, addressing the root causes of gender inequality in science will mean eradicating harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and child marriages among others. The connection between these practices and the ability of girls to choose and remain in STEM-related fields is strong.

Girls who undergo FGM, for example, are viewed as adults and, in many cases, ready for marriage. Consequently, many bright girls lose the chance to choose and excel in science once they undergo the cut. Such girls are also likely to perpetuate a vicious cycle of poverty, as they miss out on the economically-empowering potential of science-related careers.

Proper implementation of policies that seek to mainstream menstrual hygiene literacy and related facilities will address unnecessary absenteeism among female learners across all levels. Many girls from low-income households have period poverty to blame for their loss of study hours.

There is need for a multi-sectoral approach to Menstrual Hygiene Management to ensure that young girls do not miss school due to menstruation. It will also eradicate the sex-for-sanitary-products culture among economically disadvantaged girls.

There is no doubt that the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals will require the input of both men and women. From climate change mitigation to advancements in healthcare systems, societies need the skills and expertise of men and women.

However, without addressing the underlying reasons for the continued underrepresentation of women in science, it will be difficult to confidently talk of women’s contribution to the achievement of socio-economic transformation in any society, especially in the science and innovation terrains.

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