Conformity to traditional cultural beliefs and societal expectations have contributed significantly to gender gaps in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM fields in Africa, according to a new study conducted by the Nairobi-based African Academy of Sciences.

The recently published studyFactors which Contribute to or Inhibit Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics in Africa, highlights how social environment, gender discrimination and girls’ low self-assessment have being powerful barriers that prevent African women and girls from increasing their representation in STEM careers.

So far, women account for 31.3% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s researchers. According to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, a collaborator of the African Academy of Sciences, Africa is off-target in the global aspiration of empowering women and girls.

According to Allen Mukhwana, research systems manager at the African Academy of Sciences, the lower number of women in research in Africa is reflected in their participation in university education.

Datasets from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) indicate that some of the lowest ratios of women research professionals globally are to be found in African countries, namely Chad (4.8%), Guinea (9.8%), Democratic Republic of the Congo (10%), Republic of the Congo (12.8%) and Ethiopia (13%).

“Even in African countries where the number of women in STEM is growing, gender parity still remains elusive as men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions,” said Mukhwana, the lead investigator, together with her associates, Dr Judy Omumbo, a senior programme officer in charge of fellowships at the African Academy of Sciences, and Dr Jenniffer Mabuka, a programme manager for health at the African Academy of Sciences.

Attitudes, values and beliefs

The study identified patriarchal attitudes, values and beliefs as key barriers that inhibit women from pursuing STEM careers on the continent. According to the study, 75% of interviewees, which included top women researchers, mid-level women STEM personnel and university students, were of the opinion that negative traditional beliefs that women were inferior to men are contributing to women’s lack of strong enthusiasm for STEM studies at tertiary level.

According to the study, men’s dominant positions in Africa influenced socio-cultural values and beliefs that eventually created perceptions that STEM subjects were hard nuts for men to crack. About 80% of those interviewed were in agreement that sexism and stereotyping of women’s roles pushed girls and women to study social sciences and humanities or what are considered “softer” science subjects such as biology and geography.

But while patriarchal attitudes may be pushing women away from STEM fields, the study argues that the workplace environment has not been conducive to women in science. Researchers reported that 61% of women interviewed agreed that they constantly need to prove that they are as capable as men, while nearly 80% of women deal with obstacles that men do not confront.

Examining issues related to recruitment and promotion, the study reported underlying bias and discrimination. While 90% of women agreed that they were recruited on merit, only 56% said they were sufficiently rewarded based on their academic and professional qualifications.

Patriarchal perceptions

The study argues that in most African countries there is pervasive web of patriarchal perception of STEM careers that is embedded in societal and parental expectations. A complex issue that seems to operate covertly is the trust given to men and the perception that science is a man’s field, while 60%-90% of women in Africa are engaged in farmyard agricultural productivities.

“In some cultures, the girl child is already disadvantaged as some don’t even get an education opportunity at all,” stated the report.

Although sexual harassment issues ranked low during the interviews conducted in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda, qualitative data gathered during interviews suggested sexual harassment was a barrier to women’s recruitment and promotion in STEM careers. But probably the first form of discrimination is in the selection process where males are favoured over women.

In efforts to improve women’s access to STEM careers on the continent, the African Academy of Sciences has suggested a raft of strategies. According to Mukhwana and her associates, the first is to create awareness of the importance of women’s education. Respondents noted there was an urgent need to empower rural communities and urban slums to stop thinking of girls and women merely as home-makers.

The next strategy is getting more women to take up STEM courses by creating awareness in schools, particularly during secondary school education. In this regard, mentorship programmes should be considered as an avenue to encourage more women to join STEM fields.

Researchers suggested women already in STEM should be active in offering mentorship to those aspiring to join the field, while those who are in leadership positions needed to use their positions to champion the inclusion of women in STEM and help those below them to grow in the workplace.

Self-belief

Considering that in some circumstances women and girls outperform boys and men in physical sciences and mathematics in secondary education and undergraduate studies but undervalue themselves in order to conform to societal expectations, the African Academy of Sciences encourages women and girls to develop greater self-belief and to discard pervasive gender bias. Quoting participants of the study, Mukhwana said self-motivation was useful in achieving success.

According to Dr Mary Kinyanjui, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, women and girls in Africa should reject persisting cultural and societal profiling.

“Quite often, low-achieving men are attracted, recruited, retained and even promoted in STEM fields, while talented women in the same area encounter a hostile working environment,” said Kinyanjui.

To erase self-doubt and lack of confidence among a large number of schoolgirls, especially in rural areas where socio-cultural values and beliefs make it hard for them to challenge patriarchal attitudes, the academy is calling for robust public policy approaches to provide parents with information and social support to assist their children.

According to the academy, parental and family responsibilities go beyond taking a child to school and paying fees. Parental and familial duties include supporting young family members to make educational and career choices. “For instance, parents should encourage their children to pursue whatever course they wanted at the college level and more so aiding women to succeed in STEM fields,” the researchers note.

Over 95% of the survey participants called on African universities to create affirmative action programmes and scholarships for women in STEM.

This article was written by Wachira Kigotho and published on University World News (Africa Edition)