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Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Education in Africa

Strong local partnerships have a role to play

Shona Bezanson

Increasingly in Africa, many young girls and women show great interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education as evidenced by the eminent and young female scientists celebrated across the continent. Yet, the under-representation of women in STEM fields persists, globally and across the continent.

Why are women under-represented in STEM education?

This phenomenon can be attributed to several factors such as the entrenched cultural perception that STEM is a male domain and that boys and men are just ‘better’ at math and science, limited early intervention to get girls and young women excited about STEM, domestic pressures on girls, early marriage and child pregnancy, and lack of STEM female role models.

Two years ago, the Scholars Program launched a research fund to enable Scholars to explore topics that they were interested in and that applied to the program. Unsurprisingly, two teams of researchers chose to explore focus on women in STEM to better understand the factors deepening such inequality. Interestingly, both teams’ findings were similar:

  • Girls and boys had the same level of interest in STEM at the early stages of their education.
  • Girls and women are particularly interested in STEM when they understand its potential applications, especially when they see how STEM can help others.

Many girls self-select out of STEM education because:

  • The higher in their education they go, the less they feel like they ‘belong’.
  • They feel the need to select a career path that can be combined with marriage and family responsibilities.

What can be done to increase women’s participation in STEM education?

Researchers posited that to reduce the gender gap in STEM education, there should be more early and targeted STEM interventions to demystify STEM and ignite interest in girls, scholarships should be targeted at girls and women to pursue STEM programs, an introduction of varied academic opportunities including online education and nano courses (short courses) to increase accessibility to young women balancing many demands, and increase training for teachers on gender-sensitive instruction  and how to engage girls in STEM.

Mastercard Foundation’s contribution to increasing African women’s participation in STEM education?

The Foundation collaborates with local partners to design programs that support increased participation of African girls and women in STEM education. Some of these programs and partnerships include:

  • Leaders in Teaching – This program focuses on equipping Science and Math teachers, in Ghana and Rwanda, with the skills to deliver high-quality education with a strong focus on girls. For example, the Foundation partners with African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), to equip secondary school teachers with gender-responsive teaching tools for math and science, and support public engagement and outreach activities for (STEM) education, particularly for young women.
  • Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning in ICT – In Rwanda, the Centre hosts STEM days and robotic competitions for secondary school students with the focus to increase the participation of young girls.
  • Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program – The Scholar’s Program has an intentional focus on girls and young women with 72% of all Scholars being female. To implement the Scholar’s Program, the Foundation partners with gender transformative organizations such as FAWE to extend the gender-responsive pedagogy to all schools hosting Scholars, as well as Camfed, BRAC, and Equity Group Foundation who deliver the secondary education component of the Scholars Program. Over the next few years, the Scholars Program will add 15,000 scholarships at the university level, of which 70% are earmarked for young women.

Progress is not limited to these targeted programs. While there are effective interventions being implemented, there is still more work to be done to increase partnerships with local and pan-African organizations, like FAWE, to deepen the Foundation’s effort. Other notable programs being implemented by the Foundation, such as the eLearning initiative in partnership with African universities, are helping close the gender gap in STEM education for women, rural youth, refugees and displaced young people, and young people with disabilities.

Research Cited

Increasing Women in STEM’s Transition into Tertiary Education; Deborah Dormah Kanubala, Ndege Benard Charles and Misha Baudish-McCabe

Increasing Enrolment of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Tertiary Education in Kumasi; Mandela Bright Quashie, Emmanuel De-Graft Johnson Owusu-Ansah, Mawusi Adzo Arnong

Shona Bezanson is the Head of Eastern and Southern Partner Network for the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program. This piece is based on remarks she shared during a recent forum organized by one of the Foundation’s educational partners, The Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), during which she discussed perspectives on the challenges related to young women and STEM and the work the Foundation is doing to increase girls and women representation in STEM education, Africa.