Over the years, the study of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has increasingly gained grounds across the world. Nigeria is not left out as many young people are becoming more interested in studying science subjects at secondary and tertiary levels of education.
This is no surprise as our world today is largely driven by technology. Technology encompasses practically every facet of our lives. Life has become easier through the application of technology. For instance, Information and communication technology (ICT) has proven to be invaluable as the world tries to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic challenges. The application of ICT tools kept people connected, made essential services accessible and sustained businesses.
The 21st century brought about lots of scientific innovations which have propelled the need for students at different levels to become more proficient in the knowledge of STEM. Besides Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics; other STEM subjects include Actuarial Science, Statistics, Psychology, Robotics, Information Science, Atmospheric Sciences and Educational Research.
Experts have discovered that early exposure of students to STEM and technology-related subjects will help young people develop a passion for technological pursuits and eventually help them pursue a job in a STEM field.
Right now, the fastest-growing job categories are related to STEM with recent studies indicating new jobs in areas such as data analysis, software development and data visualization, virtual reality, artificial intelligence etc.
However, girls are highly under-represented in STEM and ICT classes; globally the percentage of young girls undertaking ICT courses range from 8.9% in Switzerland to 20.0% in the United States, except for India with 50.5%. What this means is that except this trend changes, women will remain under-represented in future workplaces.
This year, the International Girls in ICT Day held on April 22 with the theme: ‘Connected Girls, Creating Brighter Futures’. On this day every year, stakeholders in the technology space and indeed all of us should seek opportunities to empower girls to develop digital skills so as to pursue careers enabled by technology.
As these young girls move on to take up various careers in the ICT sphere, they are faced with several challenges, particularly finding a perfect work-life balance. Conditions like pregnancy, breastfeeding and child care pitched against rigorous work hours, but many women in disadvantaged positions. In many cases, childcare centres are not found close to places of work resulting in women working part-time or accepting lower-paying jobs to focus on their homes or quitting their career early.
There is also the glass ceiling issue affecting females in ICT such as gender biases during appointments, promotion and career improvement opportunities as well as harassment, biased evaluation by peers along familial responsibilities, which could cause increased stress.
There could be several factors that account for the under-representation of girls in STEM. One which is quite obvious, is the issue of the environment, culture as well as the emphasis on gender equality and encouragement of growth mindset. A report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) shows that the learning environment and social belief system affect girls’ interest and achievements in STEM/ICT subjects.
Another study showed that in countries like Sweden and Iceland where gender parity prevails, girls perform better than boys on Math tests. On the other hand, girls from countries like Turkey where gender discrimination is greater, don’t do well in math tests.
Research also shows that majority of people view STEM fields as which should be ideally dominated by men; a view which still holds sway to this day. Society views women in science and engineering jobs as less competent than men unless they are exhibiting success tendencies.
No doubt, there are many women who are excelling in science and ICT-related fields. Some examples of women excelling in ICT globally include Sheryl Kara Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook and founder of LeanIn.org; Ruth Porat, Chief Financial Officer of Alphabet Inc and its subsidiary, Google and Ginni Rometty, Former Chairman, President and CEO of IBM, In Nigeria, worthy role models for girls are Funke Opeke, founder, Main One Technologies; Omobola Johnson, former Nigerian Minister for Communication Technology; Juliet Ehimuan, Country Manager Nigeria, Google; and Cherry Eromosele Group Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Interswitch, to name a few.
The beautiful thing is that girls definitely bring a fresh sense of perspective to problem-solving in the classrooms and workplaces as professionals. One of such ways is using her ‘voice’; by this, I don’t just mean talking. It is when a girl challenges the status quo, excels at her studies, contributes in making policies or suggests an idea that moves their schools or organisation towards a new course of action.
Some studies have shown that teams with women as leaders were more successful when facing tasks that are more mentally challenging and required complex problem-solving abilities. But this good performance only showed if the women spoke up if the men believed that women were capable contributors, and if the team acted on the women’s suggestions.
To ensure girls are more interested in STEM and ICT careers, women already in these fields should get more involved in the development of STEM policies that will favour and encourage girls to develop an interest in these subjects. These will include exposing girls to STEM fields, encouraging participation in STEM programmes, providing scholarships, as well as supporting learning opportunities in communities.
And men can be effective allies in gender equality conversations. They can start with listening to their female counterparts and taking their concerns seriously. Men in a position of authority can bring their influence to bear by amplifying women’s voices, educating other men against stereotype, credit women’s work and ideas fairly, advocate for policies that remove bias and advance equality. More importantly, men should show their support, at home, the workplace and in other social circles.
At Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the education and encouragement of girls to fit adequately into the future of jobs is a core aspect of our ‘Back to The Future’ agenda. Currently, there are more women in the BCG workforce in Lagos, than there are men. Working with this crop of brilliant women have brought interesting and insightful perspectives to problem-solving. So, I know first-hand that women bring a fresh perspective to problem-solving.
I hope that more girls will begin to have an affinity for STEM subjects and capacity will be built in ICT-based endeavours to gain new skills and enhance problem-solving.
Tolu Oyekan is a Partner at BCG