It will take another 217 years to close the economic gender gap.
This is according to the latest Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum, which found that, globally, gender parity is shifting into reverse for the first time since the World Economic Forum started measuring it in 2006.
In addition, while more women are entering the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce than ever before, women are still significantly under-represented in STEM occupations in many countries. In fact, a recent UNESCO study found that women make up only 15-25% of the STEM workforce, and the gap is widening.
Why does this matter?
Advances in STEM have improved many aspects of life, such as health, agriculture, infrastructure and renewable energy. STEM underpins the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and STEM education provides learners with the knowledge and skills required for an inclusive and sustainable society.
Excluding girls and women from STEM fields will be a devastating loss for all.
The benefits of having more women in STEM fields are numerous. Firstly, diversity in general leads to higher performance. People who have different outlooks, abilities, and visions can in turn enhance creativity, help reduce errors and improve the design of products and services. A lack of women in STEM means we are lacking the perspectives of half the world’s population.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, as the world transitions to an increasingly digital economy, many developing countries lack enough skilled people to fill critical jobs in the technology sector. STEM education is therefore key for preparing students for the world of work, enabling entry into in-demand STEM careers of tomorrow.
It’s predicted that by 2020, 80% of all future jobs will require STEM education. The gap between the demand and supply of skilled job seekers threatens the ability of emerging economies to participate in the digital economy. Companies in the Middle East and Africa are already grappling with a lack of skilled employees, and over the next decade this STEM skills shortage will just get wider.
Increasing the participation of girls and women in STEM education and careers can help bridge this gap, which in turn will allow the workforce to access a treasure trove of untapped potential – and boost the region’s gender equality in the process.
Factors that hinder girls in STEM
It’s evident that gender gaps in STEM education become more apparent in higher education. According to UNESCO, female students represent only 35% of students enrolled in STEM fields globally. The research also found that more women leave STEM disciplines during their higher education studies, in their transition to the world of work and even in their career cycles.
In Africa, only 30% of professionals in the sciences are women. At a school and tertiary education level, girls and young women in Africa are also at a significant disadvantage in STEM-related subjects due to a number of socio-economic and cultural obstacles. These include poverty, early marriage, sexual abuse at school, and social biases that value boys’ education more. Furthermore, the overall quality of education remains a challenge for many African countries and does not always respond to girls’ learning needs.
However, the Middle East paints an altogether different picture. Women in the Arab world now earn more science degrees on a percentage basis than women in the United States. According to UNESCO, high numbers of female students are also enrolled in engineering, manufacturing and construction in the Arab States compared to other regions.
Given these encouraging figures, why aren’t there more Arab women scientists and engineers in the labour force?
There are multiple and overlapping factors which influence girls’ and women’s participation, achievement and progression in STEM studies and careers, all of which interact in complex ways.
For example, at an individual level, biological and psychological factors may influence individuals’ attitudes towards STEM. From a family perspective, parental beliefs and expectations, socio-economic status, and other household factors may come into play.
At a school level for example, factors within the learning environment all play a deep role in shaping young girls feelings towards STEM. Lastly, at a societal level, social and cultural norms related to gender equality and gender stereotypes are highly influential in discouraging girls from pursuing studies and careers in STEM fields.
STEM(ming) the gap
The gender gap and lack of female representation in STEM is not a new phenomenon. There have been many initiatives and programmes implemented to overcome both the cultural and practical biases that exist. However, there is no one-size-fits all solution and we need to understand the drivers behind this situation in order to reverse these trends.
Getting more girls and women into STEM requires a holistic approach that reaches across all sectors and engages girls and women in identifying solutions to challenges.
We must invest time and effort in understanding the influences that cause women and girls to turn away from STEM. We need to encourage interest from the early years of development, combat stereotypes, train teachers to inspire girls to pursue STEM careers, develop curricula that are gender-sensitive, and mentor girls and young women to adopt different mind-sets.
At Microsoft, we start early in the pipeline by sparking girls’ interest in technology. For example our YouthSpark programmes seek to ensure that all youth have the opportunity to learn computer science through unique partnerships with governments, business, and non-profit organisations such as Code.org. Girls represent 52% of the total beneficiaries of YouthSpark.
In celebration of International Women’s Day this year, Microsoft Philanthropies is launching an awareness campaign covering 17 countries in the Middle East and Africa to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM. The campaign, which aims to upskill over 100 000 young girls and reach 10 million young women and parents, will address the stereotypes and misconceptions that often discourage young women from pursuing careers in STEM related fields. The campaign started on International Women’s Day on March 8 and will end on the International Day for Girls in ICT on April 26.
Through integrated initiatives like these we will move the region towards gender equality both in education and the workplace so women and men, girls and boys can participate fully, develop meaningfully, and create a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable world.
Lillian Barnard is Microsoft South Africa’s public sector director.