STEM Education for African Girls

An op-ed piece by Lade Araba for the "This is Africa" website on why we need more women in the STEM fields

Transforming Nigeria, one female science and tech professional at a time

With 62 percent of Nigerians under the age of 24 and 49 percent of its citizens women, Nigeria stands to benefit by harnessing the creativity and intellectual curiosity of young women.

Yet across Africa, a wide gender divide still exists in the corridors of leadership, in corporate boardrooms, in classrooms, and, especially, in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM). Nigeria’s case reflects the wider trend.

OECD research notes a high correlation between the participation of women in the workforce and the wealth of a country. This is likely due to the fact women tend to engage more and make others feel engaged, which in itself improves productivity.

In a recent poll, Gallup found employees with female managers felt more engaged and ultimately contributed to high performing teams. An article in the Harvard Business Review showcased research that found that although in the sample of 7,280 companies 78 percent of top leadership were men, women were consistently ranked as the better leaders at all levels.

Assuming that this holds true in a country such as Nigeria, it would appear logical to empower and invest in this critical “asset class” of young women to ensure wider dividends for generations to come.

It is positive to note the growing number of female students enrolled in the biological, medical, and life sciences programmes at university. However, it is equally worrying that female participation in physics, computer science, and engineering remains low. In Nigeria, female enrolment in the STEM subjects peaks at an average of 20 percent according to data from the National University Commission.

Why does this matter and why is it important to steer more women into the STEM fields? There are a variety of responses to this question, but I will focus on three:

First, if Nigeria, and indeed other African countries, are intent on realising their industrialisation aspirations and in becoming globally competitive, they must invest in the technical education of citizens to ensure the necessary skills are available to drive industrial growth. They require specialists whose cutting edge ability can produce real innovation to tackle important development challenges, including affordable infrastructure, breakthroughs in scientific research and healthcare, and high-tech agricultural production, among others.

Women are an important asset in this regard since their natural inclination towards critical thinking and problem solving can translate into valuable and profitable new products and innovations. There should be a concerted efforts to build a pipeline of future innovators, with deliberate action taken to engage girls and young women and thereby confront the prevailing gender stereotypes and cultural biases in the STEM fields.

Second, youth and national unemployment rates are estimated at 14 percent and 24 percent respectively. At the same time there are many instances of jobs remaining unfilled simply because employers cannot find graduates with the requisite skills. Moreover, half of the unemployed youth are female.

The beauty of STEM education is that it often produces “T-experts”– individuals with core specialization in a particular area, and broad technical expertise that cuts across other sectors. For instance, an engineer’s strengths lie in his or her ability to carefully analyse situations and to create solutions to critical problems.

This knowledge is equally useful in manufacturing new products and processes, in erecting eco-friendly and energy efficient buildings, or in constructing financial models for lending institutions. A person with this type of training can therefore lend his or her knowledge to various industries, effectively guaranteeing numerous employment options, while providing greater job mobility and flexibility.

Third, inequality and income divergence are high in many African countries, and Nigeria is no exception, with a Gini coefficient of 0.43 according to the World Bank. One way to tackle this head on in a sustainable manner is to empower those who are often marginalised and disadvantaged on the basis of gender or socioeconomic status.

It is a well-known fact that women often earn less than men, even when they are equally competent, with similar levels of experience, and performing the same duties. This gender biased wage gap, although not fully eradicated, is less prevalent in the STEM fields. And research shows that women in STEM earn on average 33 percent more than their peers in other fields.

Investing in STEM education for women tackles two major obstacles to prosperity at once: bolstering national competitiveness and economic growth, and addressing the scourge of high unemployment. It is also well documented that women who are financially empowered invest in their families and communities.

Encouraging Nigerian women to choose STEM education as a pathway to prosperity seems like a win-win solution for all.