As crucial as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education is to the development of a nation, its adoption in most of Africa has remained abysmally low. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), less than 25 percent of African higher education students are currently pursuing careers in STEM-related fields.

The figures for girls are even more demoralising. Only 18 to 31 percent of science researchers in sub-Saharan Africa are women, compared to 49 percent in Southeast Europe and in the Caribbean; 44 percent in Central Asia and Latin America; and 37 percent in the Arab States, according to Adefunke Ekine, Associate Professor of Childhood Education at Tai Solarin University of Education, and Ayotola Aremu, Professor of Educational Technology at University of Ibadan.

“In Nigeria specifically, women represent between 17 and 20 percent of science researchers. Notably, at the primary school-level, girls perform as well as or even better than boys globally according to the reports of PISA and TIMSS on mathematics and science performance; however, between only 3 and 7 percent of girls who attend higher education actually study STEM-related courses when they get there. More specifically, 3 percent of girls in higher education are enrolled in ICT, compared to 8 percent of boys. Similarly, 7 percent of girls enroll in engineering and construction courses compared with 22 percent of boys who enrolled for the same fields of study,” Ekine and Aremu state.

Shona Bezanson, Head of Eastern and Southern Partner Network for the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, attributes the under-representation of women in STEM education to factors that include “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”.

According to Bezanson, two teams of researchers funded by the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program turned up similar results: “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; and 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.”

Getting girls and women into STEM is not only a matter of human rights but also makes economic sense. According to Ekine and Aremu, “Adopting diversity and gender inclusion in STEM is critical for increasing creativity, innovation, gender-sensitive perspective for products, and productivity, considering that women make up half of the world’s population.”

And there is much that can be done to increase women’s participation in STEM education. Citing research findings, Ekine and Aremu outline specific strategies and tools for boosting girl child involvement in STEM. They include use of role models, creating learning resources that portray the girl child in STEM, encouraging interest in STEM early in education, ensuring equal access to basic education, equipping teachers better, and supporting a shift in classroom dynamics.

Bezanson recommends more early and targeted STEM interventions to demystify STEM and ignite interest in girls, scholarships targeted at girls and women to pursue STEM programmes, introduction of varied academic opportunities including online education and nano courses (short courses) to increase accessibility to young women balancing many demands, and increased training for teachers on gender-sensitive instruction and how to engage girls in STEM.

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Some of these strategies are already being tested in a number of countries, such as the STEM clinics in Ghana. Organised by the UNESCO Accra Office and partners, the STEM clinics are aimed at increasing girls’ participation in STEM-related courses in secondary schools and higher education. These clinics, writes Stephan Bachenheimer, run on a quarterly basis to sensitise girls to various STEM-related careers that they can pursue, such as teaching, medicine, laboratory work, and telecommunications engineering.

“STEM clinics have a strong potential for increasing girls’ interest in science. Girls have a unique opportunity to interact with young female scientists and learn from the wide range of opportunities offered by the study of STEM subjects. Interactions with role models boost girls’ confidence about participating in STEM-related courses and helps to challenge the negative perceptions they may have about pursuing a career in STEM,” Bachenheimer writes.

As at December 2016 when UNESCO Accra, in collaboration with the Girls’ Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service, organised the first STEM clinic in the Jasikan District of the Volta Region, in which over 200 primary and secondary school girls participated, Ruth Matogah, Girls’ Education Officer in Jasikan District, said, “Currently, there are only 29 girls reading pure science (physics, chemistry, biology) out of 855 girls in the three Senior High Schools in the Jasikan District. This is not good enough. Through the STEM clinics, we will improve these statistics in the coming years.”

Mastercard Foundation collaborates with local partners, such as African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), Camfed, BRAC, and Equity Group Foundation, to design programmes that support increased participation of African girls and women in STEM education. Among the programmes are Leaders in Teaching, which 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; Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning in ICT, which, in Rwanda, hosts STEM days and robotic competitions for secondary school students with the focus to increase the participation of young girls; Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, which has an intentional focus on girls and young women with 72 percent of all Scholars being female, as well as the eLearning initiative in partnership with African universities, which, along other programmes, is helping to close the gender gap in STEM education for women, rural youth, refugees and displaced young people, and young people with disabilities.

Similarly, Girls in Science and Technology (GIST), an organisation that advocates for women and girls in STEM, showcases a representation of Ghanaian women in STEM to help motivate younger ones.

“We believe you can be what you see. We also provide mentoring, training and internship opportunities for young women in STEM,” says Ohemaa Adjei Andoh, co-founder of GIST, who trained as a Stimulations Engineer and later as a Cementing Engineer in Schlumberger.

Andoh also runs an academy for children, called PM STEAM Academy, which focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics hands-on activities to help the children embrace their creativity and to develop their interest in STEAM at an early age.

As commendable as these efforts are, they are not enough. More needs to be done to bridge the gender gap in STEM in Africa. The African Union’s Agenda 2063, with its aspiration for inclusive growth and sustainable education programmes that can ensure skills revolution accentuating innovation, science, and technology, cannot afford to leave one half of the population behind.