FEB 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, with this year’s theme being “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth”.
The theme focuses on the reality that science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is an opportunity to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.
It is also a reminder that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation should be strengthened. However, long-standing biases and gender stereotypes are steering girls and women away from science-related fields. Data from Unesco states that fewer than 30% of researchers worldwide are women and approximately 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.
Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3%), natural science, Maths and statistics (5%) and engineering, manufacturing and construction (8%).
The 2015 Gender Bias Without Borders study by the Geena Davis Institute also showed that of the onscreen characters with an identifiable STEM job, only 12% were women.
In Malaysia, there has been a drastic drop in the number of students overall (both boys and girls) choosing STEM streams in secondary and vocational schools. In 2012,48% of students chose STEM streams with this number dropping to 44% in 2018.
In 2017, the number of students in local universities and colleges enrolling in fields related to science, Maths, computers, engineering, manufacturing and construction was 334,742, compared to the 570,858 students majoring in arts and humanities, education, social sciences, business and law.
In 2019, the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry (Mestecc) announced that it had set a target to achieve a 60:40 ratio, with a target of having 60% of students majoring in STEM.
The ministry has since initiated the Energy, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (Estecc) education programme to provide more exposure in science for one million students and to nurture their interests in choosing a career in the field. Activities are to be provided by agencies such as the National Nanotechnology Centre, National Science Centre, National Planetarium and the Malaysian Nuclear Agency in partnership with private strategic partners.
While the push has been to get more students across the board to major in STEM, the Education Ministry has also studied and looked at the reasons why girls choose a STEM course or career. They found five key factors: their interest in exploring and doing experiments, career guidance, inspiring teachers, role models and peer influence. Clearly, relationships play a role in their choice, and this highlights the need to adequately train teachers and school counsellors to engage more girls in STEM fields and to continue connecting them with role models.
But getting more girls involved is not the sole responsibility of schools, and this is where we all need to play a proactive role. The government needs to work together with NGOs, professional bodies and other civil organisations to get rid of gender stereotyping.
Research and data show that including more girls and women in science and in male-dominated areas will not only bring in fresh points of view, new talent and creativity, but in some countries, it will also increase women’s social and financial positions.
As parents, we can do so much more to encourage our daughters to take up science as a career. In the early years, parents and schools can introduce all children – both boys and girls – to activities and toys that encourage them to build and make things and get them interested in exploring the world around them and how it works. Women scientists can also be invited to schools to talk to girls about their work, and even encourage older girls who are studying STEM subjects to talk to their younger counterparts about their passion for the subject.
In the workplace, mentor programmes help and support women when they are working in a minority, with women in senior roles often very keen to offer support to younger women entering their field. And probably one of the most important things is to make sure that girls see plenty of examples of successful women scientists in the news and media.
Recent studies suggest that 65% of children entering primary school today would have jobs that do not yet exist and that shifts in the global job market would result in 58 million net new jobs, particularly data analysts and scientists, artificial intelligence and machine learning specialists, software application developers and analysts, and data visualisation specialists.
With the Fourth Industrial Revolution on our doorstep and with jobs of the future to be driven by technology and innovation but women still having less than two-thirds of the economic opportunity that men have, it is incumbent upon all of us to raise our daughters to be courageous enough to walk down the road less travelled.
NATASHA ZULKIFLI , Kuala Lumpur