Opening the doors for girls in science

Today, we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The question that comes to mind is, what is the root cause of the ever-growing gender gap in science education?

Statistics show that the number of girls opting for science courses is low compared to their male counterparts. Right from primary, I had a belief that sciences are a hard nut to crack. This thinking did not emanate from someone in particular but somehow through the course of studying, I came to realize that science was much harder than (Social Studies) SST. This thinking was further reaffirmed by my teachers in secondary when concepts like the Bunsen banner and the periodic table came into play said Jovia now an English teacher.

The fact that there is a particular room reserved for performing practical classes often controlled by the teacher makes the whole idea of sciences a mystery. The laboratory is often locked off and inaccessible to students and only reachable during thirty minutes to one-hour practical sessions which might happen only once a week. During practical classes, the boys take center stage as the girls watch. This not only undermines the whole practical teaching concept but makes the girls trail throughout the session.  

Long-standing biases and gender stereotypes are steering girls and women away from science-related fields. These deep-centered beliefs rooted within our families and communities have predetermined what options are available for the girl child. The thinking that sciences are hard given the limited practical sessions during studying mocks the whole process.

In the past years, the global community has made a lot of effort in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science. In 2018, the government of  Ugandan put measures in place to address this gap, such as the Gender in Education Policy intended to use gender-sensitive pedagogy to ensuring that all students have equal opportunities to learn and that stereotypical gender roles do not impose limitations on development.

Despite these endeavors, women, and girls continue to be under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The performance of girls in sciences at the national level continues to be poor compared to that of boys. Gender bias amongst teachers remains prevalent and this is a significant barrier to achieving gender equality as teachers play a vital role in setting trends.

In Uganda, a combination of girls and STEM subjects is linked to low enrolment, poor performance, and high numbers of dropouts. If it’s not society telling a girl what she is capable of, then it’s the teacher directing her on what’s easier for her or even herself choosing the easiest option because the world has made her think less of herself.

According to UNESCO data (2014 – 2016), only around 30 percent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. According to UNEB, in 2019 out of the 8,677 female candidates who sat pure Mathematics, for example, only 50.9 percent scored E or above. When it came to Sub-Mathematics, out of the 15,920 female candidates, 36.1 percent passed with an E (E is equivalent to two points). Globally, female students enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3 percent), natural science, mathematics, and statistics (5 percent), and in engineering, manufacturing, and construction (8 percent).

This gender gap reduces the number of women who pursue STEM careers. For instance, currently, less than a third of science researchers in Uganda are women according to UNESCO.

As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science let us aim at uprooting the deep-seated societal beliefs that hold back the girl child from exploring new ideas in the field of science. The teachers must model equitable classroom strategies by planning activities that encourage the females to become active participants in the learning process and by using language that is gender inclusive. More emphasis should be put on making the learning of sciences practical and relatable not only for the sake of better performance but also to develop an interest right from the lower primary. Last but not least, we should engage and empower girls to venture into science fields and help them develop numerous skills in activities that foster the manipulation of information, creativity, reasoning, and innovation.

Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the SDGs, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Empowering the girl child to take up science-related courses is a great stepping stone towards achieving full participation in science and gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

By Stella Namatovu

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