A speech by the Managing Director of FunmiAyinke Nigeria Limited, FunmiAyinke Humanity Foundation.
Good morning distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and our great leaders of tomorrow.. I thank you for inviting me to deliver my speech on how we can bridge the gender of the future workforce and how we can develop next generations of STEM practitioners.
As we all know that STEM stands for S – SCIENCE , T – TECHNOLOGY, E- ENGINEERING, M – MATHEMATICS.
Statistics has shown that women comprised the majority of medical and health science degrees and occupations in recent years, they continue to be underrepresented in the most mathematically intensive fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. For example, statistics on earned bachelor’s degree in 2016 show that women were awarded over 59% of degrees in the biological/ biomedical sciences but in maths intensive fields made up of less than 41%. These statistics demonstrate that women are less likely to pursue math intensive fields due to their relatively lower math and science expectancies and values in comparison with men, whereas mindset theory suggests that females are more susceptible to reduced maths performance in the context of endorsing a fixed mindset in maths ability .Drawing on a broader social cognitive perspective, career pathway encompass the ability to pursue a career and the motivation to employ that ability. Without being good at maths and science, it is probably difficult to pursue a STEM –related job. As children age, peers are also likely to become important influences of STEM course and career selection. Research shows that youths with peer groups who encourage, endorse or exemplify high math and science achievement are more likely to take more maths courses , have higher maths and science motivation and are more likely to see themselves as future scientists. In other words, due to the pervasive nature of gender stereotypes in STEM, girls may be more susceptible to peer social influences in these areas which may be detrimental if peers are not supporting girls’ maths /science interests.
Female underrepresentation in math- intensive STEM fields is a cultural phenomenon brought about by the complex interaction of six underlying factors which are:
- ABSOLUTE ABILITY DIFFERENCES: This emerge in early childhood, as discernible gender gaps in verbal ability and spatial relations which are evident before kindergarten and right –tail differences in maths ability favoring males are also prevalent during this period.
- GENDER STEREOTYPES AND BIAS: This emerge early, starting when the sex of a foetus is identified ( e.g pink for girls and blue for boys) and affecting parental behavior ranging from wardrobe selection to toy purchases ( e.g cars and blocks for boys, dolls, and easy –bake oven for girls).
- CAREER PREFERENCES: Potentially, it emerges in early childhood as well but it seems to come into play more so in the middle of childhood and adolescence. The older a child becomes, the more likely they are to make realistic connections between their interests and career choices and make deliberate choices to partake in activities that enhance these interests which may better prepare them for a career in STEM. They are also more vulnerable to changes in school contexts during these time periods, during which interests and field specific ability beliefs are more prevalent during middle childhood and adolescence, although they remain important through postsecondary education as well.
- LIFESTYLE PREFERENCES: This does not seem to emerge as a leading factor in the underrepresentation of women until adulthood, after women have already chosen a career in STEM and when their work in STEM begins to collide with family formation and child rearing responsibilities. Women’s experiences in postsecondary education ( e.g during their graduate and postdoctoral work) and in the workplace (e.g as facility members striving for tenure) will become crucial deciding factors over whether they consider their careers in STEM to be compatible with their lifestyle values and goals.
- FIELD – SPECIFIC ABILITY BELIEFS: Recent research has shown that individuals are more likely to rate male dominated fields as requiring innate intelligence or brilliance compared to fields with a larger proportion of women. These findings were upheld regardless of whether the field in question was STEM or non – STEM, indicating that gender distributions across disciplines are not only influenced by STEM interests and beliefs but also by the extent to which innate intelligence is believed to be needed for success in a career.
In order to address the main causes of women’s underrepresentation in STEM, the following are the practical suggestions for addressing the pervasive gender imbalance in STEM fields:
- FOCUS ON ABILITY ENHANCEMENT BUT ALSO INTEREST ENHANCEMENT: Research shows that aptitude and interest are equally crucial to determining the carrer paths that individual choose. Girls with high maths achievement and little interest or motivation in pursuing a STEM occupation are far less likely to obtain a science degree than individuals with average maths skills and high interest in science. In particular, it is critical to cultivate the interest of females who are equally good at math and verbal domains as they have the talent to succeed in STEM. Furthermore, since females are more likely to prefer careers that allow them to work with people and make positive contributions to the society, occupations in math and science should be promoted as compatible with these career goals by stressing the more communal aspects of the job.
- INTERVENE EARLY TO CULTIVATE INTEREST IN MATH AND SCIENCE: Research shows that most people make their future career decisions before entering college and that interest in math and science develop as early as middle school. Therefore, the earlier we intervene to cultivate interest, the better for us.
- BREAK DOWN STEREOTYPES ABOUT WOMEN AND STEM: Stereotypes are pervasive throughout society and can influence beliefs about an individual’s strengths and shortcomings even when evidence of their skill level indicates otherwise. These beliefs can influence the way in which individuals think, behave, feel about their own abilities in addition to the way in which they view others. Therefore we need to combat negative stereotypes by highlighting the achievements of women and girls in STEM areas.
- EMPHASIZE EFFORT AND HARD WORK INSTEAD OF TALENT: A leading factor in women’s underrepresentation in math intensive field is the fact that women are less likely to select careers that are perceived to require innate intelligence, which are likely to include math intensive careers. To counter this, educators must stress the importance of effort and hard work in achieving success in math intensive careers. They should also reinforce a growth mindset in girls to increase their understanding that math ability is cultivated through effort and persistence and is not a static or immovable trait.
- ADD MORE STORYTELLING TO STEM LEARNING: Given that girls are more likely than boys to have high verbal and math skills, girls may get more out of science and math lessons if they are taught through the lens of a story. This educational strategy might enable girls and women to retain interest in STEM subjects by capitalizing on the strengths of their verbal skills. Learning through storytelling may also increase interest and engagement with math and science. Scientific narratives provide students with memorable real life applications for the subject matter that can increase both male and female interest in identifying as future scientists or mathematicians.
To reduce the gender gap in STEM, attention should be given to address the contributory cognitive, motivational, and sociocultural factors, primarily by maximizing the number of career options that women perceive as attainable and compatible with their abilities, preferences and goals. In order to achieve these goals, researchers, practitioners and policy makers will need to increase their collaboration and communication efforts. There is need to also convey their work to policy makers and practitioners who can put their findings into action by creating initiatives to influence the greater cultural sphere at the macro- level or by working directly with females at the micro- level to increase their interest in STEM.
Finally, with greater collaboration among stakeholders in the field, the gender gap in STEM fields should continue to shrink observably and opportunities for women and girls to realize their full potential in math and science should increase.