Nigeria and the Challenges of Engendering Women and Girls in STEM
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is a very competitive field and essential to the growth and development of the economy. However, despite its global demand and innovative nature, women still occupy a tiny percentage of the global STEM population. Globally, only 35% of STEM graduates are female. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2023, women occupy about 29.2% of the total employment in STEM. The report also reveals that although female graduate transition into the STEM sector increases annually at the global level, the degree to which these graduates are retained in the workforce reduces annually. At the entry level, women account for 29.4%; however, women only account for 17.8% of the vice presidents and 12.4% of the executive positions. Also, in the area of research and development, there are only 30% female researchers around the globe. Likewise, the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) notes that only 35% of women are featured in the media for topics related to science and health.
Africa accounts for 16% of the world’s population, and according to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa needs over 2.5 million engineers to confront its development problems. These numbers can only be obtained if there is a constant increase in the number of students in the field of engineering and technology. Unfortunately, despite the current situation, fewer girls are willing to venture into the fields of computer science, information and communications technology (ICT), physics, and engineering. As reported by the World Bank, in the top 20 economies of the world, women only account for 12% of workers in cloud computing, 15% in engineering, and 26% in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data.
In Nigeria, the World Bank notes that training in ICT increased the percentage of graduates employed in ICT by 26%, however, the figure is lower in other STEM fields like research, where only about 17-20% of science researchers are women. Also, Nigeria has only a 22% annual turnover of graduates in STEM and low female participation in STEM subjects at the secondary level.
What are the factors that limit women’s and girls' participation in STEM, and how can this be addressed?
According to the Association of African Universities’ research on women in STEM in Africa, 26.7% of respondents reveal that the perception that STEM is a stressful terrain discourages them from venturing into STEM. Also, 20.7% identify society’s view of STEM as a manly sector, while 15.9% hold that African society and culture limit their interest in STEM. Other factors identified in the study include “fear (8.9%), choice (2.2%), and non-interest (2.2%).” These biases are also actively determining female participation in STEM in Nigeria and have led to the continuous widening of the gender gap in STEM.
Gender biases, referred to as self-defeating biases by the World Bank, contribute to 50% of occupational or career gaps across the globe and are what result in women’s involvement in low-paid or less stressful sectors. This keeps affecting the global labour force participation rate for women, which according to the World Bank is 50% compared to 80% for men, as well as the parity in the labour force participation rate, which increased from 63% to 64% from 2022–2023.
Apart from individual factors, Africa is faced with the challenge of a lack of facilities that can promote STEM at the secondary level of education. The World Bank notes that more than 90% of African schools lack appropriate science labs, with less than 25% of students interested in STEM fields. The low funding that educational institutions receive—less than UNESCO's recommended 4–6% of GDP or 15–20% of public expenditure—is the root cause of this predicament.
To mitigate this trend, the following should be addressed:
- Downplay existing stereotypes about women and STEM: girls should be encouraged to develop interest in STEM subjects in primary schools and supported as they nurture their STEM interests further in tertiary education. Career choices should not be hinged on biased perspectives, often instigated by socio-cultural norms and values. Rather, it should be determined by the individual's interests, skills, and choices.
- Publicise scholarships for women and girls in STEM: There are so many scholarships for women in STEM, but information on these is rarely available to most average Nigerians. When more girls are aware of scholarships in certain STEM fields at the secondary level, they will explore such opportunities.
- STEM fairs: Primary and secondary schools should organise frequent STEM fairs that will involve female STEM stakeholders. This will expose young girls to the fact that women, just like men, have the capacity to excel in STEM. Also, through these fairs, girls will assess the various career opportunities in STEM and what they can do with a STEM degree. This will aid them in their career choices when they are faced with such critical decisions.
Although women's enrollment in education in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 9% between 2011 and 2020, countries still need to intensify their efforts to encourage female education. With the fourth industrial revolution sweeping across the globe, the World Economic Forum estimates that over 2 million jobs will be created in STEM-related fields. When young girls and women are presented with opportunities to acquire STEM education at the tertiary level, they will be strategically positioned in the world of STEM and not left behind.