Women around the world, especially in developing countries, remain a minority in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields of study (STEM). Just take science researchers alone. According to UNESCO, in 121 countries, women make up 29 percent of science researchers on the average; in Latin America and the Caribbean, they count for 45.2 percent of researchers; in Africa, 34.5 percent; in Europe, 34 percent; and in Asia, 18.9 percent.
But just as STEM is setting the pace of innovation and development in the 21st century, so too does it have the potential to help break gender stereotypes in places where traditional gender roles are strong. The pressing (and perennial) question is: How? How do we get more girls in STEM?
Most people who have tackled this question so far have emphasized the importance of disrupting stereotypes, gender sensitizing teachers, bringing STEM role models into the classroom, changing the teacher’s mindsets, and engaging girls in hands-on STEM activities.
These are important points. However, a major factor missing from these discussions is the kinds of skills, character traits, and behaviors that STEM teachers need to help keep girls in STEM. This is especially the case since teachers are products of society and often reinforce and perpetuate gender norms in the classroom. Teachers’ lack of such attributes—coupled with possible personal biases—can keep girls away from STEM subjects, and can also cause them to become discouraged when they do engage in STEM studies. So although introducing gender sensitivity trainings to teachers is a necessary first step to address gender inequality in STEM, we also need to talk about the other assets that teachers need to develop to be more gender sensitive. It’s one thing to understand gender issues and to recognize them; it is another thing entirely to be able to engage in behaviors that demonstrate gender sensitivity, and also encourage girls to develop into strong STEM students, reliably and consistently.
Doing vs acknowledging
According to UNESCO, gender sensitivity training for teachers is aimed at eliminating gender biases and discriminatory attitudes, highlighting how stereotypes in textbooks and classroom practice can perpetuate gender inequality, and promoting positive role modeling and open-mindedness in the classroom. To achieve these goals, STEM teachers need to embrace objectivity and identify opportunities for collaboration between girls and boys. They also need to develop self-awareness to recognize when their implicit gender biases may be surfacing, as well as develop their ability to regulate their own emotions when hard-set gender norms threaten to upend what they’ve learned from gender-sensitivity trainings. Teachers also need to develop confidence and a sense of boldness to set the pace in breaking cultural biases and going beyond social limitations that continue to hold girls back from pursuing STEM subjects.
Think about what girls need to thrive in STEM education. They need to be able to analyze and process data, and to communicate effectively. They also need a high degree of resilience and positive self esteem to counter the negativism and constant competitive nature of the STEM world. Gender-sensitive teachers must be able to foster these skills and character traits in girls, as well as serve as role models and sources of inspiration. Specifically, STEM teachers need to engage confidently in positive self assertion for themselves to enhance the self efficacy of the girl who possibly has to struggle with both an internalized sense of unworthiness and the gender roles society has placed on her.
An example from the field
I would like to share my own experience as an example of the potential of the training I’m advocating. In 2014, after my time as an Echidna Global Scholar at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, I conducted gender sensitivity training with 142 STEM teachers working in junior secondary schools (grade 9) in three schools in Ijebu Ode, Ogun State in Nigeria. The training emphasizied the effect of cultural biases on girls’ self-esteem, self-belief, and performance in STEM subjects. It explored the effect textbooks depicting only male scientists had on girls’ aspirations. It also explored the negative consequences of limiting “time on task” for girls (time allowed to complete tasks such as reading in class or responding to questions), as well as of discouraging communication and collaboration in the classroom, on learning outcomes. Importantly, it also included use of gender-sensitive methods and learner-centered approaches, such as storytelling, games, focus-group discussions, case studies, and report writing. In addition, there was a session on developing analytical skills, problem solving skills, and teamwork of the teachers, which ultimately increased girls’ engagement and improved their self efficacy and self worth.
Within six months, and again when measured two years after the training, the effect of improving the gender sensitivity skills of STEM teachers could be measured in girls’ increased enrollment in science subjects the subsequent school year. For example, in one school (a co-educational, private, fee-paying school with a grade 9 class of 80), the number of girls enrolling per year increased from 21 to 39. In another school (an all-girls, government, no-fee school with a grade 9 class of 300), there was an even greater upsurge in girls’ science class enrollment: from 67 girls before the training to 221 girls in the 2015-2016 academic session.
The increase in girls’ enrollment in science class was a powerful indicator. The teachers’ new knowledge about gender, cultural norms, and barriers for girls in STEM coupled with their new skills in how to apply gender sensitive methods to create a more girl-friendly STEM learning environment made a difference. Those differences fostered the development of new attitudes among teachers toward gender stereotypes in STEM, and worked to encourage girls to see science subjects as something that is for them and more—something at which they can expect to succeed and even excel.
My research team continued to monitor on a quarterly basis the long-term effect of developing STEM teachers’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes around gender and building the self confidence and communication skills of girls. By 2016, in the all-girls school mentioned above, almost the entire grade 9 class of 300 girls wanted to study science. However, instead of welcoming such a positive outcome, due to a lack of science teachers and science facilities to absorb the large demand, pressure from the teachers led school authorities to institute a special screening test that limited science class enrolment to 50 percent of the top-performing science students (150 students). This was an unfortunate step back—one likely to reinforce old stereotypes that STEM is for the select few. But it also raises parallel issues that also need to be addressed in that school district: the need for more STEM teachers and improved science laboratory facilities.
On a more positive note, in 2016, in collaboration with the local government authority and with a grant from the Nation’s Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) through my institution, we trained 157 new STEM teachers from 53 schools from four different local governments on gender sensitivity. Such scaling up is a welcome sign that more classrooms in Nigeria are working to reduce the gender insensitivity faced by girls in STEM classrooms.
The way forward
We need to focus on developing specific gender sensitive knowledge, skills, and attitudes in teachers. Teachers—especially female teachers who represent the majority of the workforce at the basic education level—need to develop positive self esteem, an open-minded outlook, good communication skills, creativity, the ability to be a positive role model, and the ability to accept feedback from students if they are to inspire girls to join the ranks of distinguished women in science in Nigeria and around the world.