Why girls still shy away from sciences

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Girls learn about robotics during a training session in Kigali last month. (Sam Ngendahimana)

Despite global efforts to empower women and girls to embrace sciences, many still shy away from the field which is a male domain.

Girls and young women often face negative cultural attitudes and practices as well as gender- biased social and political processes that limit their opportunities and undermine their self-esteem.

On February 11, Rwanda will join the global community to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day is marked to appreciate the critical role that women and girls play in both Science and Technology.

In Rwanda, STEM—an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is a field many women still shy away from. Women are known to go for ‘lighter’ careers.

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 had 53.7 per cent and in 2015 they were 55.1 per cent.

More gaps in STEM

Lydia Mitali, an officer in charge of Girl Education in the Ministry of Education observes that although the number of girls taking up science courses has increased, more effort should be put in the field of STEM.

“In the field of science and ICT, the numbers are increasing, but when you analyse each subject, the gaps are still there. As the number of girls in sciences increases, we should put into consideration which subjects the girls feel more comfortable with. Science is a very wide concept and our girls tend to be lacking in some of the subjects and fields,” she says.

“Girls seem to be improving in vocational training but in the ‘critical’ and technical subjects like engineering, construction or electricity, boys far outnumber the girls,” Mitali adds.

She notes that young women and girls encounter challenges triggered simply by virtue of being female. In fact, up to today, women remain a minority in science research and decision-making.

Mitali believes that girls continue to face stereotypes, social and cultural restrictions as well as restrained access to education, preventing them from exploring and growing in scientific careers and reaching their full potential.
“Even as the government does its part in encouraging girls to take up science courses, they shy away from these careers because their families and societies do not believe that girls can pursue careers like engineering and aviation, or do what boys do. This has pulled girls down and has also discouraged them from taking up some science courses, like medicine, as they tend to take a longer time in school and are sometimes dispirited into taking up shorter or ‘easier’ courses,” she says.

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More needs to be done to encourage girls to take on science subjects. 

Dr Alice Niragire, Rwanda’s first specialised female surgeon, also reveals that different fields in science in Rwanda still lack the female gender, such as the medical one.

She believes that in as much as the government has done its part in providing equal access to scientific education, more needs to be done to get rid of the negative cultural attitude towards women.

“Every parent should encourage their daughter to join the science field as it has been proven that girls and women are able. We as a country should also be able to use the role models to inspire girls in primary school as inspiration from a younger age plays a bigger role,” she says.

What should be done to fix the gaps?

Mitali believes that some of the girls are impatient and want to make a living and end up juggling work and school which has affected them academically.

“Some of the girls combine studies with work yet some of these courses require concentration. As it is said, patience pains but pays. They should challenge themselves into taking up bigger courses where the job market is readily available, rather than running for shorter courses because they want to complete school very fast,” she says.

Gertrude Ngabirano is the pioneer and executive secretary of East African Science and Technology Commission (EASTECO), an East African Community institution that promotes and coordinates the development, management and application of Science and Technology to support regional integration and socio-economic development.

Despite all the hardships and difficulties encountered by women and girls, Ngabirano without a doubt believes that girls in science possess the collective power to change their lives, and societies at large.

She reveals that other than the institution implementing a system where the region can be able to engage with policy makers, and translate scientific complicated language into what the ordinary person can use, they are also developing a programme in partnership with other organisations, which will encourage girls to take up science subjects and STEM all the way from primary school, rather than wait till university.

“Sciences are important as there are so many untapped opportunities for women. This programme will definitely bridge the gap and help in improving girls’ innovation because there is a lot women can contribute to the innovation gap, even in areas that concern them that the male gender may not put into consideration. I am very passionate about innovations and I must end my term when I have done something about it,” Ngabirano says.

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Students fix an electric motor during a science innovation exercise in 2014. (Timothy Kisambira)

Alice Umuhoza, a medical student at University of Rwanda, College of Medicine and an intern at University Central Hospital of Kigali (CHUK), was recognised last year at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)-Merck Africa Research Summit (MARS) in Mauritius for her research on knowledge of cancers.

She says that even when more girls are taking up science courses, few are keen on conducting research in the science field yet research immensely contributes to the science field.

“I think that girls should take research seriously as it will boost their careers in sciences. There are many areas that require research yet few girls are interested in taking it up. Research is not expensive to conduct as many think, because there are many organisations in place that are willing to offer sponsorship,”Umuhoza says.

What should be done to enhance the participation of girls in sciences?

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Leah Uwihoreye

As a country, we stand to gain a lot by exposing young girls to STEM related fields and encouraging those who are interested to follow their hearts and minds.

Correcting the negative perceptions that girls develop at a young age can lead them to embrace math and science when in high school, rather than avoid the subjects. Young girls also need to be mentored and trained to help build their confidence and turn it into career satisfaction.

Leah Uwihoreye, founder ‘Golden Thoughts’

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Ruth Njeri Waiganjo

I think that if older women in science teach or talk to younger girls, it will be a big motivation. In cases where all science teachers are men, girls don’t get to see that women are involved in science at a professional level. Also, encouraging extra participation in sciences outside the classroom and working on hands-on projects gives them a feel that science can be fun, such as building the solar system using clay.

Ruth Njeri Waiganjo, Ms Geek 2017

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Phiona Mbabazi,

Girls in Rwanda have seen examples of women who are great scientists but they still think that sciences are hard courses to pursue. They need to be empowered by reminding them that it is possible to pursue science courses and that the benefits of a science degree are immense.

Phiona Mbabazi, Medical Laboratory technician

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Ester Kunda

In tech, girls have been encouraged to join STEM through scholarships and various campaigns. Nevertheless, to continue bridging the gender gap further, we need programmes targeted at communities as they are the first support system of the child. We also need to encourage the sector to increase women in managerial roles as well as empower teachers to use approaches and illustrations that factor gender into lessons.

Ester Kunda, Programmes and Operations Coordinator, Next Einstein Forum

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Kevine Ineza,

Science teachers play a crucial role in the interest and achievement of girls in STEM disciplines and the likelihood that they will go on to follow a career path in this area.  While schools implement STEM within their educational structure it is important to consider girls’ interest in the science subject and work towards encouraging them.

Kevine Ineza, stude