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Women still lag behind in fields of science, research

Nduta Waweru and Betty Muindi @PeopleDailyKe

Women still make up a small percentage of scientists and researchers in the world. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) Institute for Statistics (UIS), only 28.8 per cent of world researchers are women, with 31.1 per cent from sub-Saharan Africa.

With the world observing the International Day of Women and Girls in Science today, under the theme, Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth, the question of strides in ensuring girls’ access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses and opportunities has arisen.

In a joint message to mark the day, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women and Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of Unesco, state that recent studies show shifts in the global job market will result in 58 million net new jobs, particularly in data analysts and scientists; artificial intelligence and machine learning specialists; software and applications developers and analysts; and data visualisation specialists.

“Unfortunately, there is evidence of current problems for women in important jobs such as engineering, with poor retention, advancement, and reintegration after maternity leave,” they said.

In Kenya, the importance of STEM has been noted since independence.  Policies and agencies such as the National Commission of Science, Technology and Innovation (Nacosti) have also been put in place to ensure the promotion, coordination and regulation of the progress of science, technology and innovation in the country.

Despite attention given to STEM, statistics obtained by Unesco in 2010 indicate that women account for 25.8 per cent of researchers in Kenya. 

The dreadful numbers have been attributed to individual and systemic reasons including the belief that STEM is meant for men, thus shaping the subject and career choices for girls and women. 

Other factors such as lack of institutional support and absence of role models also influence the low number of female scientists in the country.

According to Unesco’s 2017 report, Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM, the gender difference in the subject is visible only at institutions of higher learning, meaning that the challenges need to be faced early in the girl’s education.

Strides have been made by government and educational and development stakeholders to address the gender disparity in STEM in line with Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5), which seeks to make member states achieve gender equality and empower women and girls by 2030.

According to Stephen Njoroge, the director of the Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in Africa (CEMASTEA), besides establishing 102 model schools for STEM, the centre has also selected a number of girls’ schools for these subjects.

“We already have six girls schools for the project, but we are working with the government to identify one in each county,” he said, adding that the centre has introduced robotics and education for sustainable development to get the girls involved.

“The girls are doing great! The traditional statement that girls are not good in math and science is old thinking,” he added, noting that the centre will be in Makueni today to support the county in promoting STEM.

A quick analysis of the overall national grade summary of the 2018 KCSE results indicate that there were 64 boys and 36 girls in the top 100 candidates, with the majority from national schools and an insignificant number of private schools.

In addition, although there was gender parity in grades below C+, there were more boys than girls scoring grades A to C+, most of whom are likely to have scored good grades in science subjects.

Dr Andrew Rasugu Riechi, an education specialist and policy analyst and a senior lecturer in Economics of Education at the University of Nairobi’s School of Education, notes that the results explain why girls are underrepresented in enrolment in science-related subjects in public universities, where only about 20 per cent of them in (STEM) courses.

“In the absence of detailed and disaggregated education data, girls could be underperforming in national examinations compared with boys, which may partly explain the overall representation of girls and women in science in general,” he explains.

He says the Ministry of Education and stakeholders should not be complacent with the fact that there are more girls attending school than before when they are significantly underrepresented in STEM.

More efforts are needed to debunk the myths that girls dislike the sciences. As the competency-based curriculum is being rolled out in Kenya, teacher education programmes should urgently be reviewed and introduce gender-responsive technology and innovation so as reverse these trends.

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