By STANELY MWIINGA
IN my career I have attended different tech classes and most of the times I have realised something missing, there are usually quite a few women in these classes.
This is just not in technology classes but in general STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses. I have also noticed that some of the few females that enrol drop out.
A few months ago I attended a tech conference and during lunch I had an interesting conversation with a computer engineering lecturer from one of the universities in Zambia. While conversing with him about technology and other trends, I asked him a question that seems to bother me sometimes, why don’t we have more women taking up tech or engineering courses?
He looked at me and silently shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Technology is not for women son!” then he crossed his arms and said something that stuck with me, “but things are somehow changing now.”
Before we could finish our conversation the lunch break was over and he was needed for another session. I was left in awe and more confused than before, with even more questions.
What did he mean by things are somehow changing? Could it be true that STEM courses are not meant for women, where is the problem?
This made me take some time to research this topic further and try to find out why most women shun STEM courses especially in developing countries. Let’s dive into it.
Looking at the past years, a wide gender gap has existed at all levels of STEM disciplines not only in Zambia but throughout the world. In 2018, for the first time in 55 years, a woman won the Nobel Prize in physics – Professor Donna Strickland and it made news.
Her win publicly highlighted that women are still under-represented in STEM. The lack of women in STEM roles prevents other young women from entering the industry due to lack of inspiration, role models, or even a support system.
Studies have shown that women in the tech industry constitute only 28 percent of professionals in the sector worldwide, and just 30 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. These UNESCO statistics show a huge gap between women and men in STEM.
For example, only three percent of female students in higher education choose information and communication technologies (ICT) studies.
This gender difference is alarming, especially as STEM careers are often referred to as the jobs of the future, driving innovation, social wellbeing, inclusive growth and sustainable development.
The (2016) United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Africa Human Development Report estimates that gender inequality is costing Sub-Saharan Africa on average US$95 billion a year which is the equivalent of six percent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Africa is not achieving its full growth potential because women are not fully utilized.
Like the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, Zambia is facing significant losses in productivity and economic growth due to gender inequality especially in the labour market.
This is because Zambian women are mainly engaged in unpaid, low productivity and income jobs. Females are outnumbered by men in terms of educational qualifications as they account for only 26 percent of the employed population with university degrees compared to males at 74 percent.
Look at the statistics from a 2010 report from our higher learning institutions. Comparisons made are from a past graduate perspective view and current enrolment perspective to get a clearer picture.
The public universities however, continue to produce more women from the School of Business. Most of the studies in recent years on women’s access to and usage of ICTs argue that there is a significant gender divide in ICT access and usage, particularly in developing countries. Here are some of the reasons and findings why?
Barriers to Women in STEM
Stereotyping and bias
Is there any science behind the lack of women in STEM? Studies of brain structure and function, hormonal modulation, human cognitive development, and human evolution have not found any significant biological difference in men and women’s ability to perform in science and mathematics. Usually the most influential forces are stereotyping, segregation and bias.
Girls are often brought up to believe that STEM subjects are “masculine” topics and that female ability in this area is innately inferior to that of males. Linda Billings, the director of science communication at the Centre for Integrative STEM said something compelling, “Based on my readings of secondary literature and 60-plus years of observation and experience, I lean hard toward thinking that male-female differences in cognitive ability and style are primarily the product of socialisation that is learned.”
Also, Maria Natasha Rajah, a cognitive scientist, said that society plays a major role- “We know that children, by the time they are 4 or 5 years of age, are already using gendered language and attributing words like ‘intelligence’ or ‘brilliance’ more to men.” According to the evidence, she suggests that, society and life experience play much larger roles in distinguishing the sexes than brain differences.
Segregation of girls in early age
Toys and job possibilities are usually promoted towards male counterparts as well as the lack of career support, mentors and development opportunities. University departments and educational institutes are often led by men who also occupy key leadership positions of responsibility.
A study submitted by Felesia Mulauzi – To investigate whether professional women in Lusaka, Zambia use ICTs to access development information showed that women often find themselves at a disadvantage due to technophobe. They view technology as tools for men only.
In school, girls are not encouraged to study science and technology, a trend which later results in low level participation of women. So how can we improve our perceptions and allow more girl child participation?
Keys to Bringing More Women into the Tech Industry
Start young: A strong foundation in STEM has to start at elementary level. Waiting for college or university may be too late for many of them to get interested. We must commend the government for introducing ICTs in schools, however, there is still more to be done to motivate the girl child.
Introduce Clubs: One great way would be to start STEM clubs for girls in schools to specifically help them gain interest.
Celebrating Women in Tech: This is one other best way to spread the word about girls’ and women’s achievements in math and science. If we get more people talking about career women doing great things in the tech or scientific world, it will encourage more women to change their perceptions about stereotypes.
How many times have you heard a female engineer encouraging young girls on the media platforms? It is good that we have some courageous women in Zambia like Chisenga Muyoya the founder of Asikana Network, a social enterprise that seeks to increase the interest and participation of women and girls in technology.
Its goal is to change mindsets and eliminate negative stereotypes attached to girls and women in ICT. The Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA) as a regulator has also put in place deliberate measures to engage women and girls into ICT activities and careers.
We also have International Girls in ICT Day that is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of April. It aims to encourage and empower girls and young women to consider studies and careers in the growing field of ICTs, enabling both girls and technology companies to reap the benefits of greater female participation in the ICT sector.
With that said, I can safely say technology is not just for Men, we all need to get involved on all levels to help inspire girls to explore their full potential in science, math, and engineering fields.
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