It may sound improbable but only 4% of countries have achieved gender parity in tertiary education. But, unlike primary education, there tend to be more females than males enrolling in higher education institutions with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet, women are less likely than men to earn degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In countries such as Chile, Ghana and Switzerland, women make up less than a quarter of students enrolled in STEM degree courses.
Stereotypes keep girls out of STEM degree courses
Gender stereotypes are a massive driver of these disparities. Consciously or unconsciously, teachers’ gender beliefs are passed on to their students, inadvertently shaping the choices they make about their futures. For instance, in the United States, anxiety expressed by female mathematics teachers was found to be associated with female students’ perceptions that boys were outperforming them in mathematics.
A randomized experiment in France assessed the effectiveness of a one hour, one-oﬀ visit by a volunteer female scientist to grade 10 and grade 12 classrooms. Exposure to such a female role model signiﬁcantly reduced the prevalence of stereotypes associated with jobs in science, for both female and male students. While there was no signiﬁcant eﬀect on the choice of track the following year among grade 10 students, the probability of grade 12 students being enrolled in selective science programs increased by 30%.
Perceptions can have adverse effects on a student’s grades; in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, girls showed a significant disadvantage in grades when it came to mathematics. Two girls for every three boys reached minimum mathematic proficiency in grade 6 in Chad and Niger, while 85 girls for every 100 boys reached minimum proficiency at the same grade level in Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Peru.
Certain messages coded in curricula, textbooks and the media can re-enforce long-standing gender biases. They perpetuate notions that men are cut out for certain professions, such as engineering, while women are more suited to others like nursing, discouraging women from enrolling onto and completing STEM degrees.
For one, each sector requires enough human resource capacity to reach its full potential. This cannot be possible if a large portion of women – or men in that respect – are under-represented in the fields that lead to these professions. Moreover, if gender balance is neglected, then the possibilities for innovation and fresh perspectives are reduced in developing affordable clean water and energy solutions (SDG 6 and SDG 7), innovation (SDG 9), climate actions (SDG 13) or sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11).
It is in poor countries where such talent is most needed and yet where women are most underrepresented in STEM degree courses. The 2012 Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS), revealed that women made up less than 10% of the water, sanitation and hygiene professional workforce in 74 developing countries. Women accounted for only 7% of such professionals in Papua New Guinea.
How to change gender attitudes preventing women from studying STEM degrees
There are several ways to proceed, as the recent Cracking the code report by UNESCO showed. Governments, educators, civil society and parents all have a role to play in ensuring that prevailing beliefs about gender are challenged to empower women to take on active roles in any professional sector of their choice.
Governments can begin by facilitating scholarships, mentorship and apprenticeship programmes for women to foster their interest and encourage them to sign up to STEM courses.
Where curriculum and textbooks are concerned, governments – with the support of civil society actors – should remove any gender stereotypes. In Viet Nam, the National Strategy on Gender Equality for 2011-2020 made it explicit that textbooks should be screened for gender stereotypes.
Teacher preparation should be revised to ensure that they fight stereotypes. Teacher codes of conduct and training can reduce the instances of gender bias in the classroom. Changes in methods and approaches have already proved successful in Turkey, where student teachers took a course on gender equity that resulted in more gender sensitive attitudes.
Finally, countries may also be held accountable by regularly submitting reports on their obligations towards gender equality, including on STEM degree course participation.