How education can close the gender gap for women in STEM

Women and girls play a critical role in science and technology and education plays a vital role in strengthening their participation

By Poonam Bhojani

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Published: Sun 11 Feb 2024, 3:52 PM

Last updated: Sun 11 Feb 2024, 4:07 PM

While girls have greater access to education than ever before, they continue to be challenged by gender biases, social norms, and lack of mentorship, affecting the quality of education they receive and the subjects they study.

Women continue to be under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, and as a result, in STEM careers. This needs urgent remediation, since STEM careers are jobs of the future, driving innovation, social development and inclusive growth.

For instance, research by the UN shows that women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues, and only 12 per cent of members of national science academies are women, even though they represent 33.3 per cent of all researchers.

It is a remarkably different story in the UAE though. Statistics reveal that more women than men complete secondary education and enrol in university and post-graduate institutions in the country. In fact, women make up 41 per cent of UAE government university graduates in STEM.

The UAE's women have successfully broken the STEM ceiling - Sarah Al Amiri, UAE Minister of State for Public Education and Advanced Technology and Chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency led the team that sent the UAE's Hope Probe spacecraft to Mars. Women engineers and scientists comprised 34 per cent of the Emirates Mars Mission team and 80 per cent of the Hope Probe's operations team were women.

These are outstanding accomplishments no doubt and undoubtedly inspire more young women. Education plays a vital role in encouraging women to take up careers of the future. Because the UAE offers a rich and diverse ecosystem for learning and career progression, there is also ample scope for women to pursue opportunities as educators. To illustrate, over 60 per cent of STEM teachers in our secondary schools are female and all primary class teachers do their STEM teaching.

At Innoventures Education, our STEM girls group is empowering female secondary students by fostering a passion for STEM subjects, aiming to address the gender gap in these fields. In turn, this significantly contributed to a remarkable shift in the gender distribution within the IBDP Higher Level (HL) subjects of mathematics and physics. We have seen a noticeable increase in female enrolment in STEM subjects, climbing from approximately 10 per cent to an impressive 35 per cent.

Girls also need to see successful role models, who can influence and inspire their own career choices. When we hosted NASA astronauts and world-renowned scientists to mentor students, including Commander Susan Kilrain, a veteran astronaut of two space shuttle flights and Dr. Michaela Musilova, astrobiologist, analog astronaut and writer, we noticed great interest from girls students who saw that they can, indeed, reach for the stars.

As educators, we believe that nurturing and promoting the advancement of women in STEM is not just a domestic priority but an economic necessity. By educating and attracting more women to STEM careers, we can also enjoy better scientific and economic outcomes. Furthermore, expanding diversity in the workforce brings fresh perspectives and ideas, which can give organisations a competitive advantage.

By encouraging participation in such activities and emphasizing the importance of pursuing higher-level mathematics and science careers, our teachers are nurturing a generation of confident, capable, and enthusiastic female STEM enthusiasts, poised to make a significant impact in the field.

Supporting the next generation of women in STEM calls for a unified approach from all educators. The UAE government has already launched landmark initiatives to encourage students to take up STEM, including an annual national science fair – the National Science, Technology and Innovation Festival (NSTIF). Meanwhile, the Emirates Foundation has also been running 'Think Science', an annual youth-focused program for students between the ages of 15-35 to develop their knowledge in the field of science, technology and innovation. As educators, it will be up to us to leverage these opportunities to inspire and motivate young women to forge ahead with competitive careers in STEM.

(Poonam Bhojnani is CEO of Innoventures Education, which seeks to empower students for success by leveraging technology to meet shifting educational paradigms)

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