Biased cultural norms, limited technology access, and biased teaching and learning materials perpetuate the STEM education imbalance between boys and girls.
Ensuring that girls receive a quality education is the most powerful investment we can make in our collective future. Educated women are more likely to marry at a later age, have fewer children, earn higher incomes and build better lives for themselves and their families. The World Bank has even said that without improvements in gender equality, we will not reduce poverty in Africa.
Addressing the under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses is a central part of improving girls’ education in Africa. The choice could not be more clear: if Africa does not make significant progress in getting more girls in the sciences, its progress towards sustainable development will be compromised.
However, in many countries across the continent, social norms and traditions prevent girls from pursuing educational opportunities. In Sudan, for instance, many families with children see girls’ priority as domestic chores over schoolwork. Evidence shows that African girls who spend 28 hours per week on household duties and caregiving attend school 25% less than those with just 10 hours of weekly domestic chores. In a continent where girls are far more often pressured to work in the home than boys are, it results in major gender disparities in learning.
Some will argue that technology could be the solution, providing digital access to learning that girls might not otherwise have. However, gender norms already limit girls’ access to technology, and have had a disproportionate impact on their learning opportunities during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
In Ethiopia, parents are more likely to deny girls access to mobile phones as they want to protect them from exposure to unsafe content. One study found that for boys, cost is the biggest barrier to mobile phone access, while for girls, social norms are the main constraint; a large majority of boys do not have to seek permission to use technology while nearly half of girls do.
Globally, the disparity between boys and girls is so great that boys are 50% more likely to own a mobile phone than girls and more than half of girls have to borrow a mobile phone if they want access, compared with only 28% of boys.
There is also significant disparity in how girls and boys are treated in the classroom itself, especially in STEM subjects. Teachers often demonstrate the same gender biases as parents, sub-consciously encouraging boys ahead of girls by calling on them first or more often to answer science-related questions. Teaching materials and textbook examples further deepen the divide with more references to boys and male success than that of women and girls.
Data from the OECD reveals a strong correlation between 15-year-old boys’ self-confidence in STEM subjects and their higher performance versus girls’. Yet boys’ brains are no more effective at STEM problem-solving than girls’, and there are negligible gender differences in children’s maths skills. What evidence does show, however, is that girls’ self-perception, due to community pressures and biases, are the primary reason for girls succeeding less in many countries in STEM studies and careers.
The most immediate way to nurture their confidence in the sciences is to increase girls’ exposure to high-quality, inclusive science instruction in schools. Girls’ familiarity with STEM is a key part of building their self-confidence in it.
That’s why the British Council is tackling some of these issues in a drive to increase and sustain access, interest, participation and performance of girls in these subjects at all levels:
These are just some examples of the systems changes that can be achieved. We encourage aid agencies, ministries of education and other partners to consider the wide-reaching benefits of creating societies in which girls can achieve their potential in STEM.
The British Council welcomes the opportunity to co-create impactful, needs based education programmes in partnership with like-minded organisations.
Andrew Zerzan is the Deputy Regional Director and Director of Education, Arts & Civil Society for British Council in Sub Saharan Africa.
Andrew is an international programme leader, passionate about finding solutions to complex social and cultural challenges. He has more than 15 years’ experience in international programme strategy, partnership development and project management.
Andrew joined the Council in 2014 and has held several roles including, Global Director of Education, Global Head of Business Delivery, and Director of Risk and Security.
Prior to joining British Council, Andrew worked with several organisations including the World Bank, Gates Foundation and Reed Elsevier plc. In 2004 he launched a start-up education business, pioneering a high-tech approach to learning and connecting people from different cultures and geographies.
Andrew was commended by the City of London for innovative risk management in the Risk Management Awards of 2014.