Universities urged to do more to nurture women in science

African universities have been urged to foster gender equality, parity and mentoring of girls and early career women scientists in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in order to facilitate economic transformation and other developmental challenges affecting the East African region.

This was a key message emerging from an event held in Nairobi, Kenya on 12 February to celebrate the International Day for Women and Girls in Science. The theme was “Gender equality and parity in science for peace and development.”

Convened by UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa in partnership with the Forum for African Women Educationalists, Microsoft Kenya, African Women in Science and Engineering, the Ministry of Education and the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, the event brought together upcoming student scientists from universities and tertiary institutions, practising women scientists as well as teachers and lecturers who contribute to making a difference in girls’ participation in STEM subjects.

According to a study conducted in 14 countries and quoted in an official concept note, female students’ likelihood of graduating with a bachelor, masters and doctoral degree in science-related fields are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages for male students are 37%, 18% and 6%.

Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta, regional director at the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa, told University World News that science-related fields will continue to play a significant role in the well-being of people and the continent cannot afford not to explore the full potential for creation and innovation that women and girls can bring to the table.

“The under-representation of women and girls in STEM courses in our higher education systems will definitely translate into a loss of a critical mass of talent, thoughts and ideas, which hinders countries in reaching their maximum development potential,” Ndong-Jatta said.

Women also represent a minority in research and at high levels of responsibility in science both in academia and in decision-making structures, she said. At the same time, girls continue to be subject to social and cultural restrictions in some communities, while in others, their limited access to education, science and to funding for research continues to curtail their advancement.

Ndong-Jatta encouraged universities to promote the full participation of women and girls in science by changing their mindsets, and by fighting stereotypes and biases that affect girls’ horizons, expectations and professional goals from the early stages in their career.

More programmes to support and mentor women and girls towards full participation in higher education and institutions were needed, moves which call for policy dialogue, strategic interventions and attitude changes, she said.

Caroline Thoruwa, chair of African Women in Science and Engineering, said STEM subjects are at the core of the sustainable development agenda as they are closely linked to key global challenges such as energy, food security, biodiversity, land use and climate change, among others.

She said significant numbers of women and girls in the region do not participate or perform well in STEM-related courses. Even in cases where high numbers enrol, only a few graduate. The situation becomes more pronounced as the level of education rises and a combination of factors, such as cultural practices and attitudes, biased teaching and inadequate learning materials, perpetuate the imbalance, she told University World News.

Thoruwa called for a paradigm shift in public and private universities and urged African governments to invest in hubs and research facilities to ensure students did not leave Africa to do research elsewhere.

She said strategic partnerships between universities and industries would help to boost the number and quality of women involved in STEM courses.

Stephanie Ajwang, a student at Kenyatta University pursuing a bachelor of science degree in microbiology, praised the event and called for more workshops like it.

However, she said universities’ curricula should be aligned with what students will find in the job market. She said while women and girls can make a difference when given opportunities in STEM fields, most of the available jobs require work experience from their candidates, which is not achieved at the graduate level. This means that postgraduate students compete with undergraduates for the same positions in many instances.