Gender stereotype, girls and science education
In an era marked by a significant shift in the traditional concept of womanhood and an increasing presence of women in medicine, law and business, a growing concern that there are few women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), should attract the attention of authorities in any jurisdictions.
In this regard, as the issue of gender parity aimed at reducing gender imbalance in development, increasingly occupies the front burner, the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) alarm that at present, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women and only around 30% of female students select STEM-related fields in higher education should not be ignored by leaders, especially in the developing world.
Specifically, the multilateral agency has lamented that despite an increase in the enrolment of female pupils in schools, girls are still significantly under-represented in STEM subjects – that define the colour of development at this time.
Tracing the stage where females lose interest in STEM, UNESCO states that many girls appear to be losing interest in STEM subjects at adolescence.
So, what is responsible for this situation? A 2010 research report by American Association of University Women (AAUW) (equality advocacy organisation) can help to explain why there are so few females in STEM.
The research findings of AAUW point to environmental and social barriers including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities as factors that continue to block women’s progress in STEM.
Buttressing the findings of AAUW, the United Nations (UN) says that long-standing biases are steering girls and women away from science-related fields. These biases are located in gender stereotype, which is a widely held belief or generalisation about the behaviours, characteristics and roles performed by females and males. These socially accepted and often unconscious ideas start to form from infancy.
So, individuals learn what constitutes female and male behaviour from their family and friends, the media, and institutions including schools and religious bodies from infancy.
Essentially, gender stereotypes originate from local culture and traditions. The prevalence of gender stereotypes in our culture impacts on both girls and boys, who are constantly bombarded with messages about how they should look, behave and play according to their gender.
This context often limits girls from maximising their potential. So, the conscious or unconscious assumptions we make about boys and girls impact differently on them and can result in the different treatment of one group compared to another.
Ipso facto, gender stereotypes shape self-perception, affect wellbeing, attitudes to relationships and influence participation in the world of education and work. This means that gender stereotypes influence classrooms, schools and educational policy.
In a school environment they affect a young person’s classroom experience, academic performance or subject choice. Hence, in education, stereotype threat has been linked to academic performance.
As such, stubborn beliefs cultivated from an early age such as “girls are bad at mathematics,” “girls are better at cooking,” or “boys don’t cry,” pave the way to sobering statistics about the number of female leaders in business, politics and STEM-related fields.
So, from a career perspective, boys and girls have been socialised with the ‘nimble finger argument.’ This in turn leads to the gendering of jobs and accounts for the gendered differentiation of hybrid jobs and could therefore be one reason for women’s segregation in STEM employment and the attendant gender pay gap.
So, despite gains in gender equality, ingrained biases about males and females in education, particularly in STEM-related fields still exist; and can have grave consequences.
The implication of having less females in STEM-related fields is that females have less than two-thirds of the economic opportunity that men have as the fourth industrial revolution starts, because the job of the future will be driven by technology and innovation, which STEM subjects shape. So, if the gender divide in STEM is not bridged soon, the overall gap in gender-balance of employees is likely to widen.
Therefore, as we “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change” and #BalanceforBetter, in line with the 2019 International Women’s Day (IWD) celebration, Nigeria should adopt the balance-for-better ideology in STEM for gender-balance of employees.
Furthermore, educating girls is one sure way of empowering them to make genuine choices over the kinds of lives they wish to lead. When she is educated, she realises the full potential in her; she discovers to be whoever and whatever she wants to be. With education, she would break the shell of ignorance and open that of self-discovery.
So, investing in girl child education is also a social protection and a holistic approach to so many socio-cultural challenges women and girls face.
Similarly, it is a holistic empowerment for improved maternal and child health. Besides, it reduces early marriage/delayed marriage, hence, will help reduce the incidence of girl child giving birth to a child.
Anyway, beyond the realisation of the importance of children to education, especially the girl child in a gendered environment, achieving gender-balance of employees and increasing the chances of women in the fourth industrial revolution requires that parents, teachers, gender advocates and the Nigerian state turn their searchlights to addressing the imbalance in females studying STEM-related courses.
Specifically on increasing females in STEM-related fields, the entire society should debunk the myth and other gender stereotypes that girls dislike STEM or boys are better in STEM; because STEM has nothing to do with sex.
Also, parents and teachers should make it clear to girls that they can and should be leaders — in the classroom, in clubs and sports, and in their careers; talk to girls about what worries or scares them about STEM.
Teachers and counsellors should also discuss strategies for dealing with the worries, familiarise girls with female leaders in politics, business and STEM fields. In the main, school authorities should support girls’ involvement in activities that can build their confidence – in any fields.
Again, the education of every child starts from the family as charity begins at home. So, to prevent gender bias in STEM, parents/caregivers and teachers should work to counter stereotyping and discrimination starting from early childhood.
By talking about gender biases early, parents can blaze a trail toward equity long before girls and boys engage in romantic relationships, choose subjects and courses or enter the workforce.
Similarly, to deconstruct gender stereotypes and prevent bias, parents should check their own biases by being mindful of the language they use, the way they treat people of different genders and even the perspectives they hold on their own abilities and traits.
Besides, they should provide children of both genders with books and movies that feature non-traditional gender roles; talk about female politicians, athletes, and scientists versus male teachers, dancers and homemakers. They also have a responsibility to encourage children to try all types of extracurricular activities and talk about why they may feel more comfortable in some pastimes than in others. They should also help them distinguish whether they enjoy an activity because they are surrounded by people like them or because of the activity itself.
Also, parents should have open discussions at home about the way chores are divided up and set expectations that both children and adults are expected to have a turn at everything: cooking, cleaning, yard-work, and taking out the trash. They should also ask children for their feedback about these family practices and finding out if they think boys and girls are being held to the same expectations or are parents dividing work up equally — and if not, do children understand why?
Furthermore, parents and teachers should teach children about gender bias by showing children how biases and gender expectations have changed over time; sharing times when the parent/teacher felt treated unfairly; arrange for the children to interview a grandparent or older person of a different generation and ask the children to think if our country changed its expectations of men and women.
Request the children to outline the challenges women still face. It is also important to talk to children about the stereotypes they encounter at school, on television, or while shopping.
When parents/teachers and children see or hear something degrading, ask children to interpret it with a view to finding out if the children find it harmful or unsurprising. Then, explain to the children how stereotypes can be so ingrained in our society that we do not always notice them.
Again, parents and teachers should explain to children the importance of listening to and appreciating both genders as matter of basic decency and find from children what might be challenging about being a person of another gender.
Based on children’s responses to, parents and teachers should work on developing empathy, because nothing more commonly erodes children’s capacity to care and to lead efforts to promote equality and justice than the biases they hold and confront in others.
In addition government at all levels should invest in teacher training and gender-responsive technology and innovation to reverse the trend, particularly in the hinterlands because that is where the biases are felt more.
Laboratories, especially those in the rural areas should adopt local technology and be made more gender-friendly.
Media contents and female events should use successful female scientists as role models to challenge adolescent girls to pursue STEM related disciplines.
Let’s invest in and promote girls involvement in STEM-related fields for inclusive growth and gender-balance of employees.