STEM education and careers — equal participation of girls & women

Laila Khondkar | Friday, 24 September 2021

The recognition of Dr Firdausi Qadri's lifelong contribution to scientific research is a cause for huge celebration, especially when underrepresentation of women and girls in workforce and higher education in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) remains a serious concern across various regions. South and West Asia have the lowest proportion of women in STEM in the world, and Bangladesh is at the very bottom with only 14 per cent involved in STEM.

It is to be noted that Dr. Firdausi Qadri, emeritus scientist of ICDDR,B received Magsaysay Award this year and made the nation proud. Her achievements lie in the research and development of vaccines of cholera and typhoid. Dr. Firdausi with her team led a feasibility study on a newer, more affordable cholera vaccine. In her research career, she has 491 publications and 17,014 citations. In 2014, she founded the Institute for Developing Science and Health Initiatives (ideSHi), which conducts biomedical research and runs training courses and a testing centre. This has become a hub of scientific activity by local and visiting scientists in Bangladesh.

 Official citation of the award says, "The Raman Magsaysay Award Foundation board of trustees recognises her passion and life-long devotion to the scientific profession; her vision of building the human and physical infrastructure that will benefit the coming generation of Bangladeshi scientists, women scientists in particular, and her untiring contributions to vaccine development, advanced biotechnological therapeutics and critical research that has been saving millions of precious lives."

STEM EDUCATION: Research has shown that by age 16, only 25 per cent of girls asked to draw scientist will picture a female. This loss of confidence is a direct result of the challenges women face when pursuing STEM education and careers. According to "Towards an equal future: reimagining girls' education through STEM" (UNICEF, 2020), girls' career expectations meet gender stereotypes. More boys than girls aspire for a career as a scientist and engineer (in 72 out of 78 countries) or an ICT professional (in all countries). Stereotypes about STEM as masculine subjects and social norms about what girls can and should do are reproduced in teacher and parental expectations. This shapes girls' beliefs and attitudes towards STEM.

In Bangladesh, around 80-85 per cent of the garment industry workforce is comprised of women, but men are in leadership role. Women in the garment sector are concentrated in a smaller number of low-skilled, labour-intensive jobs. The sector might accomplish complete automation within 10 years. Women will be at risk of losing jobs due to this technological shift. Factories may prefer males over female workers if they lack automated machine knowledge, problem solving, planning, and decision making. STEM education can help girls and women develop skills to cope and succeed in a changing, competitive job environment. Their capacity on transferable soft skills should also be developed.

It is not just the garment industry in Bangladesh that needs a female workforce-educated in STEM. We should have more STEM teachers, agricultural leaders, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers as industries continue to evolve. We need women in Artificial Intelligence (AI) research and development-a field that is moving extremely fast and is already affecting various aspects of politics, society, communication and our lives. Women must be part of the design teams of AI related products. Otherwise, the algorithms developed by others may continue to perpetuate prejudices against women.

ROLE OF FAMILY: In an interview, Dr. Qadri mentioned "My mother was a professor at the University of Dhaka. My grandmother was also very progressive. She believed that girls should study. She inspired me. Both of my grandparents had played a role so that I became a researcher. My grandmother would be angry when marriage proposals were brought for my sisters. She told us that we have to study and be independent. My grandfather was also a headmaster. So, there was an environment for education in our home."

It was quite encouraging to note the high importance placed on girls' education by Dr. Qadri's grandmother when many people in our society still do not do so. That is why arrange marriage of the daughters as soon as they find a "suitable groom".

It is terribly upsetting to know that so many girls are not returning to schools after reopening, as they were married off during the prolonged school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of child marriage in South Asia and ranks among 10 countries in the world with the highest levels. In addition to poverty, concerns about safety of adolescent girls, and weak law enforcement, social norms regarding the role of girls and women contribute to the wide acceptance of child marriage. There is a disproportionate focus on reproductive and care giving role of women in general, which undermines their academic and professional aspirations and achievements. Many parents from well-off backgrounds also do not hesitate to arrange marriage of their daughters while they are in the middle of university education. A lot of Bangladeshi women cannot enter the job market or have to leave jobs after getting married and having children. Many professional women are not able to give their best due to the fact that they are over-burdened with domestic responsibilities. We must change social attitude to promote education and empowerment of girls and women, which will be helpful for ensuring their equal participation in STEM as well.

Dr. Qadri has also mentioned about the availability of child care nursery at ICDDR,B that supports working mothers. While it is important that workplaces provide crèche facilities for both male and female staff, we must address the current lack of men's equitable participation in care giving. Bangladesh government should adopt and implement policies that specifically encourage and support fathers' involvement in early childhood development, care, and education. This will send a strong signal to the society that parenting responsibilities should be shared by both parents. Employers will have to ensure that workplace policies enable both men and women in performing their roles in child rearing and domestic work.

Evidence from different parts of the world suggests that when educators talk to girls about STEM and actively encourage them, the girls become more interested in these subjects. It is important to engage girls in hands-on STEM activities or let them shadow a STEM job for a certain period. Various organisations in Bangladesh can offer internship opportunities to girls. Both men and women well-established in STEM careers can be mentors to young women.

Celebrating female role models is very important. Nearly half of all girls interested in STEM do not know a woman in a STEM related profession. Media can play an important role in this regard by stopping to disseminate gender stereotypes and promoting messages/images that celebrate successful women including those in STEM. Parents should raise boys and girls equally so that they do not feel confined by stereotyped societal expectations. Then girls will feel confident to study STEM.

END NOTE: STEM is influencing various aspects of our lives including education, employment, communication, healthcare, entertainment etc., and will shape our future.  In Bangladesh, women risk continuing to be unemployed or in low paying jobs that may no longer exist due to automation. They will also miss on new job opportunities, as shifting economies demand diversified skills. It is extremely critical that we take initiatives to engage more girls and women in STEM education and careers if they are to realise their full potential, contribute to society and economy to the best of their ability, and actively participate in the design of the world undergoing fourth industrial revolution.

Laila Khondkar is an international development worker. [email protected]