Why women avoid careers in science, technology and engineering

Women are grossly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers despite solid gains in the share of females graduating from university in the fields, reveals a NationNewsplex review of jobs and education data.

Only one in three doctors is a woman. Slightly more than a third (35 percent) of the 6,664 doctors and dentists registered with the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board (KMPDB) by 2018 are women.

Unesco figures indicate that the representation of women researchers is also low in other science fields in Kenya, including natural sciences (14 percent), and engineering and technology (11 percent). Even though women provide 80 percent of farm labour in Kenya, they make up less than a third of agricultural scientists.

As the world marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the exclusion of women from STEM is not unique to Kenya but common around the world. Women account for just 28 percent of global researchers but the figure masks wide variations between countries and regions, according to Unesco data (2014 - 2016).

In East Africa, barriers facing female researchers include difficulty in travelling to conferences or in participating in field work, on the assumption that they are the primary caregivers at home.

Each step up the ladder of scientific research, work and decision-making sees a drop in female participation. For instance, only one in four of the about 2,500 active specialist doctors (e.g. cardiologists, oncologists and gynaecologists) in Kenya is a woman.

Just three of 18 major science and policy-based research organisations in Kenya are headed by women − the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis and Kenya Forestry Research Institute (the chief executive officer is serving in an acting capacity).

One in six university and university college heads is a woman. A deeper dive into the degree courses offered by the universities shows that only four of the women were at the helm of the 12 universities that offer a wide range of STEM courses. They were Egerton University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Technical University of Mombasa and Kirinyaga University (acting VC).

A look at what is coming down the pipe suggests that a lot more effort is needed to smash gender bias and enable girls and women to access and excel in science. Figures from the Commission for University Education indicate that a third (33 percent) of university students enrolled in STEM courses are women. The presence of women varies according to the field of study. In 2015, at the undergraduate level, the share of female students’ enrolment was particularly low in the clusters of manufacturing (16 percent), engineering (17 percent) and computing (22 percent). But there was near gender parity in the health and welfare cluster (49 percent).
When it comes to graduation rates, gender parity was nearly achieved among students who graduated in health and welfare with undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees. Two in five graduates in life and physical sciences, and forestry and agriculture were women.

Further down in the academic ladder boys continue to outshine girls in science and math. In the 2018 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination girls beat boys in metal work only and lagged behind in the other science and technology-related courses, including biology, chemistry, computer studies, electricity, general science, mathematics, physics, power mechanics, agriculture, and aviation.

Very smart

Persisting biases and gender stereotypes drive girls and women away from science-related fields. These biases set in early in life. The results of a study published in 2017 in the journal Science showed that by age six, girls are already less likely than boys to describe their own gender as “brilliant”, and less likely to join an activity said to be for “very, very smart” children. The study found that just one year earlier, at age five, children seemed not able to differentiate between boys and girls in expectations of “really, really smart”—childhood’s version of adult brilliance.

Another study in the same year by Microsoft surveyed 9,500 teenage girls in nine European countries on their attitudes toward STEM. It found that most lose interest by the time they turn 14. Even in Finland, the only country where girls are more likely than boys to be top performers in science, two-thirds of female teens said they see the natural sciences as important, but just slightly more than a third said they would consider a career in that area.

Among the reasons given by the 11 to 18-year-olds who took part in the study on why they did not select STEM courses was lack of female role models in the sectors. Almost two-thirds said they would feel more confident pursuing a career in STEM fields if they knew men and women were equally employed in those professions. Others said they were not getting enough practical, hands-on experience with the subjects.

According to Unesco, past national reviews of women’s representation in science in Latin America refer to obstacles relating to the work-life balance and disadvantages for women in science and research who are expected to manage the household and put in full-time, and even overtime, at the same rates as men.
As in the real world, the world in movies reflects similar biases, according to a study conducted in 10 most profitable movie territories internationally (Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom) as reported by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The 2015 Gender Bias Without Borders study by the Geena Davis Institute showed that of the on-screen characters with an identifiable STEM job, less than 12 percent were women.

A 2018 Future of Jobs Report by the World Economic Forum covering 20 countries, which collectively represent 70 percent of the Global Gross Domestic Product, concluded that millions of jobs will be lost to disruptive labour market changes from 2015-2020 with an overwhelming majority of new future jobs requiring STEM skills.

Reached gender parity

Some countries and regions have proven that it is possible to break down the barriers that hold them back from achieving gender parity in STEM. Women researchers have attained gender parity in Southeast Europe (49 percent). South Asia is the region where women make up the smallest proportion of researchers − 17 percent, 13 percentage points below sub-Saharan Africa.

Today, in many countries and regions, women dominate the broad fields of health and welfare but not the rest of the sciences. They are least likely to feature among engineering graduates yet there are also exceptions to the rule. In Oman, for example, women constitute more than half (53 per cent) of engineering graduates.

The second-most popular field of STEM for women is science. The share of women studying science matches men in many Latin American and Arab countries. In the 10 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean, females make up 45 percent or more of tertiary graduates in science. In Guatemala, as much as three-quarters of science graduates are female. Eleven out of 18 Arab states also have a majority of female science graduates.

The Malaysian information technology (IT) sector is made up equally of women and men, with large numbers of women employed as university professors and in the private sector.

Much of sub-Saharan Africa is witnessing gains in the share of women among tertiary graduates in scientific fields. South Africa and Zimbabwe have almost achieved parity among science graduates, with 49 percent and 47 percent respectively.

The share of female engineers is fairly high in some sub-Saharan Africa countries compared to other regions. In Mozambique and South Africa, women make up about a third of engineering graduates.

Unesco reports that a combination of factors reduces the proportion of women at each stage of a scientific career. A study conducted in 2008 of the career intentions of graduate students in chemistry in the UK found that almost three-quarters of women had planned to become researchers at the start of their studies but, by the time they completed their PhD, only a third still harboured this career goal.

Career advise

The study found that female students were more likely to encounter problems with their supervisor, such as favouritism or victimisation, or to feel that their supervisor was insensitive to their personal life, or to feel isolated from their research group. They were also put off by discomfort in the research culture of their group in terms of working patterns, work hours and competition among peers. Many of them also spoke of having been advised against pursuing a scientific career, owing to the challenges they would face as women.

In East Africa, barriers facing female researchers include difficulty in travelling to conferences or in participating in field work, on the assumption that they are the primary caregivers at home.

According to Unesco, changing the current system of performance appraisals and rewards to accommodate women’s child-bearing years without obliging them to sacrifice their careers is the single most important step towards rectifying this imbalance.