Gender equality in education, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), is a major concern for many national and international organizations and communities. The UNESCO agenda on gender equality in and through education is designed to promote the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4), which is to ensure all-encompassing, unbiased, transformative, and lasting education opportunities for all, irrespective of gender. Yet, gender inequality in STEM still exists and remains a major challenge for many countries, especially in developing countries like Nigeria.
There are almost as many women as there are men in Nigeria. In 2021, according to the latest statistical report on women and men in Nigeria, women constituted 49.99%, with the ratio of women to men at 100:101. Although Nigeria has not held a national census since 2006, estimates from the National Population Commission (NPC) show that the projected population of Nigeria in 2020 was 206,283,338; this increased to 211,493,324 in 2021. In 2022, Nigeria’s estimated population was 218,541,212, which increased to roughly 223.8 million in 2023. Nigeria’s population growth rate was 2.56% in 2020 and 2.53% in 2021, but remained at 2.41% in 2022 and 2023. In 2023, NBS noted that Nigeria had an annual growth rate of 3.2% and an estimated population of over 200 million people.
The population of females in education across the various levels of education in Nigeria remains low when compared to that of men. Various data collated from the NBS, Nigeria Education Digest, the Statistical Report on Women and Men in Nigeria, and the World Bank reveal that females are still not adequately represented across many educational institutions in Nigeria. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the gender parity index of the total net enrolment rate in primary schools between 2010 and 2022 is 0.8%.
STEM is one of the key drivers of economic growth and development. It provides individuals with the technical and scientific skills needed to not only navigate the labor market but also contribute to national development. To understand women in STEM, UNESCO has developed four separate survey approaches under the broad theme “STEM and Gender Advancement (SAGA).” SAGA identifies the STEM population as individuals with or without a formal STEM education or training who are either in a Science and Engineering (S&E) occupation or not. These survey approaches include the STI Gender Objectives List (STI GOL); measuring Gender Equality in Science and Engineering: the SAGA Toolkit, the SAGA Survey of Gender Equality in STI Policies and Instruments; and the SAGA Survey of Drivers and Barriers to Careers in Science and Engineering.
These series of surveys show that indeed, through STEM education, students are exposed to a deep-rooted understanding of the needs of their societies and the globe. Likewise, STEM prepares students for problem-solving and innovative journeys intended to produce high-tech inventions. They also reveal that the participation of women and girls in STEM starts with their exposure to education (formal and informal/vocational), but unfortunately, the figures are not encouraging in Nigeria.
Below, Table 1 shows the enrollment rate of females across the various institutions, while Table 2 shows the female enrollment rate in the National Diploma (ND) and Higher National Diploma (HND) programmes of the Polytechnics, College of Health Science, and College of Agriculture.
Table 1: Enrollment of Females across the Various Educational Levels in Nigeria, 2016-2020
Table 2: Enrolment into Polytechnics, Colleges of Health Science, and Colleges of Agriculture by Session 2015/16-2017/18
The realities of female participation in STEM have raised concerns from various companies and associations, like the Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria (APWEN), Siemens Stiftung, Institute of Climate Change Studies, Energy, and Environment, University of Nigeria Nsukka (ICCSEE-UNN), and Interswitch, among others. Consequently, efforts are being made by private and institutional organizations to encourage women’s and girls’ participation in STEM. For example, the Financial Institutions Training Centre (FITC), during the 2023 International Women’s Day celebration, organized a hybrid program titled ‘DigitALL: Innovation and Technology as Enablers for Gender Equality” to advocate for a transformative digital and technology-driven education system that is gender sensitive and accessible to women and girls. Similarly, Interswitch organizes a transformative event called “InterswitchSPAK” that challenges the capacity of African secondary school students in STEM and also empowers successful participants in STEM education.
Also, the Civil Society Action Coalition on Education for All (CSACEFA), Siemens Stiftung, and Network of Nigerian Women in STEM (NWiSTEM) have actively engaged in equipping boys and girls in STEM, as well as organizing a train-the-trainers (TTT) event for STEM teachers. Others, like STEM METS resources and Prime STEM Nigeria, have an online and private platform and sessions for learning STEM courses. Likewise, tertiary institutions continue to make calls for the improvement of STEM in Nigeria through conferences, campaigns, and advocacy.
Turnout of Women in STEM in Nigeria
Female turnout in STEM programmes in Nigeria continues to decrease. This condition has resulted in a reduced number of women who have a degree in STEM and are employed in the labor market. In 2020, about 61.6 million women were in the labor force, which was higher than the number of men. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) 2020 MSME survey indicated that 20% of the businesses in the formal sector belonged to women, while about 12% of the corporate boards of directors were women. By 2022, 67.31% of females were employed and at work, while 16.7% were underemployed and 6.6% were unemployed. The same survey revealed that 76.9% of women owned businesses or engaged in farming activities. In 2023, the percentage of unemployed women increased to 78.8%, while the employment-to-population ratio for men and women was 79.3% and 74.9%, respectively.
The historical record of female STEM employment is rooted in the statistics of female student participation in STEM in Nigeria and serves as a driving force behind advocacy and STEM promotion initiatives. Likewise, as the figures for female participation in STEM in secondary schools continue to decrease annually, advocacy around this continues to increase. The table below depicts the number of students enrolled for the National Business Certificate (NBC) and the National Technical Examination (NTC) exams organized by the National Business and Technical Examinations Board (NABTEB).
Table 3: Full-Time Technical College Out Turn Summary by Programmes: 2013/2014- 2018/2019 (May/June NBC/NTC)
Electrical Installation and Maintenance, Brick/block and Block Laying and Concrete Works, Motor Vehicle Mechanics, Computer Craft Practice, Fabrication and Welding, and Carpentry and Joinery are the STEM subjects with the highest number of enrolments. However, even with the large figures attached to each subject annually, the number of females is often lower than that of males. Apart from Computer Craft Practice, where females on several occasions recorded more than 50% of the total enrolment, the number of females taking STEM subjects in technical colleges in Nigeria remains discouraging. The chart below shows the overall number of females who graduated in the May/June session.
Fig. 1: Technical Colleges Graduate Statistics from May/June NTC/NBC Examination 2014/2015-2020/2021
Although the number of females who enrolled for the May/June NTC/NBC examination increased from 30.5% in the 2014/2015 academic session to 36.54% in the 2020/2021 academic session, most of these women do not go ahead to enroll in universities or other tertiary institutions.
For decades, the general gender perception of STEM courses being for the male sex also plays out in Nigeria and is responsible for the low enrollment figures of females into STEM in tertiary institutions of learning across Nigeria. According to the Statistical Report on Women and Men in Nigeria in 2019, only 38.21% of females graduated from medicine, 33.98% of students graduated from sciences, and 7.21% from engineering and technology. The chart below shows inconsistencies in the rate of female turnout in selected STEM programs. It also shows that of the selected disciplines, women tend to study general sciences and pharmacy rather than engineering and technology, which has the lowest rate of turnover over the period captured.
Fig. 2: Tertiary Out-Turn of STEM graduates from the National Youth Service Corp Database 2017-2020
Inclusion of Women in STEM Fields in Nigeria
One of the major challenges affecting the rate of females who venture into STEM in Nigeria is the perception of the nature of STEM as a tough field. As a result, many girls are indirectly nudged to believe that STEM is reserved for boys. A few others, however, have consumed and inculcated the notion that girls need not concern themselves with more brain-challenging fields of study but rather focus on other fields that are termed “girly.” As a result, very few women are found in STEM courses, while men dominate them.
Gender stereotypes in STEM affect the productivity of women in the field of STEM and continue to be a hindrance to women's interest in STEM. UNESCO constantly promotes awareness of women’s participation in STEM and urges countries to break the chains of socio-cultural gender biases and stereotypes that hinder the achievement of a milestone in women’s participation in STEM. The stereotype in STEM influenced UNESCO’s first framework used in the STEM and Gender Advancement (SAGA) Survey of Gender Equality in Science, Technology, and Innovation Policies, which measures gender equality in science and engineering. Due to the significant role gender stereotypes play in STEM, UNESCO encourages countries to work towards changing the perceptions, approaches, prejudices, social customs, and stereotypes towards women in STEM.
The question remains, how can Nigeria improve its gender statistics in the field of STEM?
Increased Employment Opportunities for Women and Girls in STEM MSMEs: According to UNESCO, women in STEM careers hardly progress as far as their male counterparts. Likewise, women researchers in STEM publish less and also receive less pay for their research. This discourages many women from venturing into a career in STEM.
Nigeria has the highest number of female entrepreneurs in the world. However, they are more involved in the informal sector, while over 50% of the women employed in the formal sector are found in teaching, clerical services, and sales. According to the Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSME) 2017 national survey report, the manufacturing sector employs three times as many men as women. Also, while more males are employed in MSMEs, women occupy only 43% of the available SMEs in Nigeria. PwC notes that in 2019, a study of the 162 companies that were listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) revealed that women occupied 19% of total board seats, 20% of the board seats (of the top 20 companies), and 23% of senior managerial positions.
Fig. 3 shows a breakdown of women’s engagement in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) according to the latest Statistical Report on Women and Men in Nigeria prepared by NBS.
Fig. 3: Employment in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), 2017-2018
Promote a Gender-Sensitive Work Environment: One major deterrent to female participation in any field of career is how flexible the work environment is and how it accommodates the professional and personal lives of staff therein. There is no doubt that a career in STEM, like what is obtainable in many other fields, is very demanding and requires a lot of sacrifices, which most women are not willing to make. Flexible work hours, maternity and paternity leave opportunities and structures, gender-sensitive harassment policies, and lenient recruitment and career growth procedures and criteria all determine the choices of women in careers, thereby affecting the decisions of others when choosing a career path. When women are assured or know that they can comfortably participate in STEM without jeopardizing their personal lives, more women will venture into STEM.
Increased STEM Motivation for Girls: According to the last report by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on women and men in Nigeria, 22% of annual STEM graduates from Nigerian universities are women, while about 5% of this figure can be found in the information and communication technology sector. Also, in the technology industry, women occupy just 25% of the employment rate and only 5% of leadership positions.
Also, the United Nations Institute of Statistics (UIS) reveals that women make up less than 30% of the world’s researchers and suggests that one of the means through which this can be elevated is to encourage female participation in STEM from a young age through increased enrollment in primary, secondary, and vocational education. UNESCO’s article on Improving Measurement and Policies for Gender Equality in STEM shows that gender disparity in STEM becomes noticeable in ECCDE and becomes very glaring at higher levels of education.
Achieving increased female participation in STEM is a call that individuals, institutions, and the government should respond to. However, despite the potential of STEM for economic growth and development, Nigeria has yet to fully utilize the potential of this sector.
Hence, to increase the number of females in STEM in Nigeria, there is a need to introduce gender-sensitive pedagogical approaches to learning STEM across various fields of academic endeavors to attract more female participants. In addition, a gender-friendly work environment should be promoted to encourage female STEM teachers to enter the educational sector. This can serve as a motivational factor for young girls in STEM to aspire to either be like their female teachers or to do more exploits that will set a new standard for upcoming females who will aspire to continue in STEM.
Nigerian culture understands the place of family in social life and the development of society, as well as how most Nigerians prioritize their family (home front) over their careers. Hence, labor policies that are not too stringent—the type that gives women the ability to combine their family life with their career—will result in more women making waves in STEM. Policies like extended maternity leave, compulsory paternity leave, partial maternity leave, and strict sexual harassment agendas will also lead to a greater number of women who venture into STEM.