A new UNESCO report addresses girls and women’s significant underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions worldwide, a divide rooted in girls’ earliest days of socialisation and schooling.
“[The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) gender gap] disempowers girls and women and throws a shadow over entire societies, placing a break on progress to sustainable development. In this new age of limits, when every country is seeking new sources of dynamism, no one can afford to shunt aside 50 percent of its creativity … 50 percent of its innovation,” stressed UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova at the launch of the report “Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM”. This was during the UNESCO International Symposium and Policy Forum, held from 28-30 August in Bangkok, Thailand, and attended by more than 300 delegates from over 70 countries.
Severe gender inequalities among students in school
“Cracking the code” highlights that tremendous strides have been made in narrowing the gender gap in education in recent decades. Millions of girls and women previously shut out of learning opportunities altogether now fully exercise their fundamental right to education and thrive in the pursuit. However, severe gender inequalities persist for those already in school. A major concern in many countries is limited educational pathways for girls and more specifically, lower participation and learning achievement of girls in STEM fields of study in many settings.
The report reminds that STEM fields drive the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, enabling innovative solutions to current and future challenges. There can be no peaceful and lasting development unless girls and women have equal access to education that can fuel their dreams and enable them to contribute to the better world we all desire.
The UNESCO report therefore aims to decipher the factors that hinder or facilitate girls’ and women’s participation, achievement and continuation in STEM education, and what can be done by the education sector to promote girls’ and women’s interest in, and engagement with, STEM.
The report finds that girls’ disadvantage in STEM is a result of multiple and overlapping factors embedded in both the socialisation and learning processes. These include social, cultural and gender norms, which influence the way girls and boys are brought up, learn and interact with parents, family, friends, teachers and the wider community. These influences are a powerful force in shaping their identity, beliefs, behaviour and choices.
According to the report, education systems and schools play a central role in determining girls’ interest in STEM subjects and in providing equal opportunities to access and benefit from quality STEM education. Teachers, learning contents, materials and equipment, assessment methods and tools, the overall learning environment and the socialisation process in school, are all critical to ensuring girls’ interest in and engagement with STEM studies and, ultimately, STEM careers.
Getting more girls and women into STEM requires holistic and integrated responses that reach across sectors and that engage girls and women in identifying solutions to persistent challenges. “Doing so moves us all towards gender equality in education where women and men, girls and boys can participate fully, develop meaningfully, and create a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable world,” the report stresses.