Girls in science: How far have they come?

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Students doing practicals in a laboratory. (File)

In 2013, researchers at Yale published a study proving that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favourably than a woman with the same qualifications.

In the report, presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job.

In Rwanda, STEM—an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics is a field many women shy away from. Women are known to go for ‘softer’ careers. However, there is hope that this will change in the near future.

As the world marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, we take a look at the milestones taken this far and how more women and girls can be encouraged to get on board.

Statistics from the Ministry of Education indicate that in 2011, girls in secondary schools taking up sciences were 48.7 per cent, in 2012 50.8 per cent, in 2013 52.5 per cent, 2014 53.7 per cent and in 2015 they were 55.1 per cent.

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A female student at IPRC Kigali Technical Secondary School reads through an examination paper. (Faustin Niyigena)

Encouraging more women to join STEM

Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the Minister of Youth and ICT, says that there is still a big gap between girls and boys who take on sciences and that with this, more has to be done.

He, however, says that even though that gap still exists, if one compares the number of girls taking up courses in this field now and back then, there is a huge improvement.

“If you compare the situation now to a few years back, there is indeed a commendable change as the number of girls in the science field has increased.However, we can’t rely on this because we have a target to make by the year 2020, that’s why we still need to put a lot of effort into it,” the Minister says.

The Minister believes that with more encouragement and guidance, many more girls will certainly take up these courses.

“Both rural and urban girls have equal chances at science courses but this mostly depends on the awareness they have. Being aware of the advantages of such courses can help them make the choices. This is why the Ministry of Education has a career guidance system where they explain the relevance of the science field,” he says.

Patrice Dorrall, the head of White Dove Girls School, an institution that focuses on nurturing girls in sciences, says that some girls shun sciences because of the challenges they encounter along the way.

She points out that some of the challenges these girls face are related to feelings of intimidation involved with STEM-related academics; especially physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science, emphasising computer science as a course still very much a male-dominated field.

Dorall also says the influence of other aspects, like family, plays a part because many students are told who to become rather than given the space to really answer the questions of ‘what I am interested in studying and who do I want to become?’

She says that teachers on the other hand also have a bigger part to play when it comes to this, and that they are the most important people in a school in terms of setting students on the right path academically. Finding teachers that are not only qualified on paper but understand subject content and can teach to excellence is key in awakening students’ interest in science.

“At White Dove, we search hard for such teachers, we have expectations of our students and we assess continuously through quizzes and tests all throughout the term not just for a midterm or a final exam,” she says.

“Students are encouraged to speak up when they need clarification and to seek extra help if needed from teachers.  There’s a common culture of expectancy and positivity that our girls embrace and it motivates them to study hard and to achieve,” she points out.

Dorall believes that words are powerful and speaking in a manner that creates a culture that continuously whispers courage can help encourage the girls to embark on this journey.

“Finally, sharing the stories of other women who have thrived in science related fields gives visible role models to our girls, and this is important.”

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Pupils of Kimisagara Primary School using laptops. STEM should be encouraged as early as the primary level. (Faustin Niyigena)

Why embrace sciences?

Dr Alice Niragire says that women should embrace sciences because it is an essential field. She believes that there is still a big gap in fields like medicine because doctors are still few; so it would be outstanding if women filled the gap.

Niragire’s dream as a young child was to become a doctor and she literally lived her dream when she became the first female surgeon in Rwanda.

She says that women have always shunned sciences because even in her class,very few girls took up science courses and many ended up dropping the course.

“I know it’s not a simple journey to embark on because sciences are tough but one should also be hard working and determined to make it in that field,” Niragire says.

“Taking up medicine wasn’t easy but I was determined to make it and realise my dream,that’s why I never gave up. My family too was supportive that’s why I was able to make it,” she adds.

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A group presents a project during a workshop on STEM in October 2015. (Julius Bizimungu)

Claudette Irere, the Managing Director of kLab, explains that women taking up sciences should be a priority and everyone should encourage girls to take these courses.

“Sciences are important as there are so many untapped opportunities for women. As the saying goes,‘educating a girl is educating a whole nation’, when girls learn, they know better and with this they are empowered,” she says.

Irere emphasises that when women are empowered, they do much better and that it has been proven time and again that an increase in the number of women anywhere translates into improved knowledge outcomes and better lives.

How can girls’ involvement in sciences be boosted?

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Cheyenne Muvunyi

Girls’ involvement in sciences can be boosted through encouragement by both teachers and parents. Also, exposure to the different areas of science and not just medicine, things like genetic engineering and micro-biology, for example. Lastly the creation of more science-related competitions and workshops that show just how exciting and challenging science truly is.

Cheyenne Muvunyi, student

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Akaliza Keza Gara

It’s important that both girls and boys are represented in scientific studies and practices if we want to see new discoveries and innovations that will address the issues that are facing men and women today.

Akaliza Keza Gara, Founder Shaking Sun

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Eve. M Tushabe,

I am a marketer and my field is related to both art and science since it involves data-driven decision making and many more scientific approaches. Being a mother to a little girl, I want to encourage her to embrace science. I think we can all gain a lot by exposing girls to science fields but, we need to put an end to negative perceptions. More workshops and competitions should be put in place to encourage young girls to find and maintain interest in the field.

Eve. M Tushabe, Managing Director iBlue Concepts

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Joy Kankazi

Thinking of sciences in relation to girls today, one cannot deny the fact that the rate has increased. It’s not like back in the day when science was for boys; however, we still have a long way to go since some students positively take on science options but find it hard to keep up because of its challenging tuition.  

Joy Kankazi, student