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The only Woman in the (STEM)Room - Why Science is still a Boys' Club

Discriminatory stereotypes prevent women and girls from having equal access to education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As a mathematician and teacher, I feel how wrong these stereotypes are; they deny women and girls the chance to realize their potential – and deprive the world of the ingenuity and innovation of half the population.

All women active in STEM share the urgency to commit to end bias, demand for greater investments in STEM education for all women and girls as well as opportunities for their careers and longer-term professional advancement so that all can benefit from their ground-breaking future contributions.

A UN analysis of engineering and computer science shows a steady decrease in female graduates since 2016 that is particularly marked in high-income countries. The share of women graduates in engineering and computer science between 2016 and 2018 slipped in Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and the United States, as well as in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Female participation is falling in a field that is expanding globally as its importance for national economies grows, penetrating every aspect of daily life.

The share of women working in STEM is also higher in some developing countries, with increases observed in sub-Saharan and Arab countries. Women in the United Arab Emirates, for example, have benefited from national polities that promote training and employment of Emirati citizens, and in particular women.

The active women in STEM must raise awareness about the work of women scientists by providing equal opportunities for their participation and leadership in a broad spectrum of high-level scientific bodies and events.

Science and technology offer unique opportunities for women and girls to overcome a number of the barriers they typically face. For example, mobile money has empowered and transformed the lives of millions of women previously thought to be “unbankable” by enabling them to directly access financial products and services.

Women with skills in science and technological fields can help improve vital infrastructure such as water and power supply, and in doing so ease the responsibilities that women and girls carry of providing unpaid care work for the household.

Similarly, Internet and mobile technology can help bridge barriers to education for the 32 million girls who are out of school at the primary level and the 29 million at the lower secondary level, explained the main UN entity on women's empowerment and gender equality.

Women now account for 53 per cent of world's bachelor's and master's graduates in science and 43 per cent of PhDs, according to the UNESCO report. Since 2016, there has been a steady increase in female graduates in agricultural sciences, likely driven by an emphasis on national food security and the food industry.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, female graduates in agricultural science have been increasing steadily, with women comprising 40 per cent or more of graduates in Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Medicine is also a field increasingly popular with women, with six out of 10 researchers being women in both medical and agricultural sciences in Belarus and New Zealand, for instance.

In research, however, women still lag men at 28%. The figure fluctuates geographically with women in Southeast Europe are on par with men, and at 44% in Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The gender pay gap already leaves women with much lower lifetime income than their male counterparts. The pandemic adversely affected more women, either because of their role as primary care givers to their children and families, or because of the nature of the sectors they work in. Without thinking now about issues that directly affect women’s economic situations, there is a risk that the coronavirus will further exacerbate inequalities and push back women’s rights. (says


Jobs in science and technology are some of the fastest growing worldwide, with 90% of future jobs requiring Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills. However, one-fourth of young people – mostly girls – are neither currently employed nor in school or in training.

In STEM, only 30% of female students choose to pursue science-related careers in higher education.

But many girls never make it to primary school. Right now, five million more girls than boys are currently out of school. Girls face far more barriers than boys do at every stage of their lives, starting at a very young age. In households struggling to make ends meet, girls are more likely than boys to stay at home and support the family, while boys – seen as future breadwinners – go to school.

In too many countries, the persistence of early and forced childhood marriage denies girls their right to education and blunts their life choices and full potential.

Simply entering adolescence can mean an end to education if girls do not have resources to take care of their bodies. An estimated one in 10 girls in Africa miss school during menstruation because of inadequate menstrual health supplies or sanitation facilities.

Even in countries with near gender parity in education, stubborn biases are still established early. A study in Science found that by age six, girls are less likely than boys to describe their own gender as “brilliant” and less likely to join an activity labelled for “very, very smart kids.”

With STEM in particular, an unfortunate bias that girls are not as smart as boys – or have no interest in these careers – persists. This is flat wrong. According to a 2019 poll by Girl Up on global Gen Z girls, the vast majority of girls (81%) think it’s important to have the same access to STEM learning that boys have, but less than half (42%) feel that they have equal access.

And unfortunately, the lack of female role models, mentors, and decision makers only re-enforces existing barriers.

Here’s what we can do to be better Feminists and STEMinists for girls everywhere:

  • First, we need greater investment in quality education to give all children a chance.

  • Educations plans at every level need to be gender aware and gender transformative, and education systems need to be held accountable. That means more and better gender-disaggregated data, paying special attention to barriers facing girls and implementing gender-focused strategies.

  • We need to build and support pipelines to STEM programs, networking, and scholarship opportunities for girls and women. Girl Up’s WiSci STEAM Camps, which enhance skills and leadership in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Design, and Mathematics, are great examples of such opportunities.

  • We must stop politicizing girls’ bodies and health. Girls have a right to information and services, including contraception and other reproductive health services, so they can make free and informed choices, and stay in school.

  • Finally, the discrimination needs to end. We need to end early and forced child marriage for good. We need to enforce codes of conduct for students and teachers that promote equality. And we need to elevate female leaders, scientists, and entrepreneurs as powerful role models across society.

Donna Strickland (the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 55 years) said, “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there.” Indeed, and the pathways and principles to ensuring more girls can thrive in science, technology, engineering and math endeavors are out there, too.

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