Fixing the gender gap in science in Rwandan secondary schools

Rwanda is celebrated across the world as one of the few countries where the women stand shoulder to shoulder amongst their male counterparts in top government leadership positions.

Late last year, an education official was asked by a high school senior if there was a gender gap (in favor of boys) in learning outcomes in mathematics and sciences amongst Rwanda secondary schools’ students. The answer is not immediately apparent.

Today, Rwanda is celebrated across the world as one of the few countries where the women stand shoulder to shoulder amongst their male counterparts in top government leadership positions.

As well, data by leading organizations such as UNESCO indicate that in East Africa, Rwanda, leads the pack when it comes to gender parity in net and gross enrolment at pre-primary level through to secondary level of education.

If anything, the girls’ enrolment seems to have surpassed that of boys at the basic level of education; and overall, the gender parity in favor of girls is made even rosier by the fact that for the last three years, girls have consistently outperformed boys albeit with a small margin in O-level national examinations.

On average, the results have placed the girls at about 52% of those who passed their O level examinations in the last three years. Indeed, the general picture looks good for Rwandan girls in as a far as participation and general learning outcomes up-to lower-secondary school is concerned. 

However, one weakness of general outlooks is that it tends to mask nuance. Indeed, a recent analysis of district based O-level examination data for the 30 districts between 2013 and 2017 indicate that generally, at a national level, for every ten students with grade 1 and 2 scores in any of the science (physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics) subjects, only four will be girls.

In other words, there is an under-representation of girls and eventually women in sciences in Rwanda. This challenge, however, is not unique to Rwanda, it is a complex reality that many countries are struggling to deal with.

Research evidence from across the world has attributed the persistent gender gap in sciences in favor of boys to many contextual, cultural and structural factors.

In other words, the observed differences though common in many countries has nothing to do with innate capacity of the group of students:  Girls and boys have equal intellectual and cognitive capacity to engage with mathematics and sciences.

Indeed, in a number of countries in Europe and in Asia the girls out- perform the boys in the equivalent of Rwanda’s O level examinations. Right here in Rwanda, findings from the analysis of above mentioned data shows that in some districts such as Nyarugenge, the girls turned the tables on the boys in the top two grades: For every 10 students in Nyarugenge who got grade 1 and 2 in mathematics and sciences, six were girls.

And at a national level, the fact that the girls can do better in sciences is captured by the fact there has been a steady increase in the number of girls posting top grades in the four sciences. Chemistry tops the league, by an average increase of 13%, while physics and Chemistry have posted an average increase of 6% and mathematics 4%.

In other words, progress is possible. In the coming years, the number of girls taking sciences in A-levels and therefore women in science and STEM careers is likely to increase significantly. 

But this increase will be dependent on the extent to which the policy makers and other education stakeholders understand why some districts are performing better than others to shape policy interventions and public engagement.

One such intervention is the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences’ (AIMS) Teacher Training Program which is being implemented as part of the Leaders in Teaching Initiative (LIT) of MasterCard Foundation.

Through this program, the two organizations are seeking to equip Rwanda’s secondary schools’ mathematics and science teachers with gender responsive pedagogies while at the same time implementing a number of public engagement activities geared towards rallying the general public to support the efforts of both girls and boys to learn mathematics and sciences.

This week for example, twenty teachers who are affiliated to an evolving TTP teacher community, hosted simultaneous celebrations of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in over 17 schools across the country.

These celebrations were preceded by a celebration session in Rwamagana district which brought together over 200 female students from across the districts to interact with science undergraduate female students and a cross-section of women in STEM careers in the country. The activities focused on role modeling to position science and engineering as viable careers for girls.

The women in STEM careers and courses were mobilized through FAWE Rwanda and support of other organization such Rwanda Association of Women in Science and Engineering and the National Council for Science and Technology.

There were also sessions for parents because as I said above, we need a holistic approach to enroll and retain girls in the sciences and this includes everyone including the wider community.

The dust is slowly settling down on the celebrations leaving behind greater determination to work towards bridging the gender gap in science.

The Writer is Director, Teacher Training Program at African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.