Gender-responsive career counselling can help women’s progress in science

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Year-on-year the issue of women in science comes back to the surface as we celebrate the International Day of Women in Science.  Yet, year-on-year there is not enough progress.  The 2020 Gender Report showed that women are still over-represented in education, health, arts, humanities and social sciences, and under-represented in some science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields of study.

The facts are hard to ignore. Women make up less than 25% of those studying engineering, manufacturing and construction or ICT in over two-thirds of countries. Less than 1% of those studying STEM subjects are women in the Maldives. In OECD countries, on average, women account for less than 20% of entrants in tertiary computer science programmes and about 18% of engineering entrants. They make up only around 10% or 12% of students in ICT programmes in high-income countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.

Credit: UNICEF/Brown

This can be turned around. Already in some countries, the field has been levelled. Women make up 51% of students in ICT programmes in Tunisia, for instance.

Better gender responsive school counselling policies are needed.

In the formative Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years ago, the lack of gender responsiveness in school and career counselling was recognised as a bottleneck in gender equality more broadly. Still today, programmes that redress such imbalances are needed, especially as gender digital divides are currently being stretched by the advent of COVID-19. Policies required include active measures to ensure teachers, counsellors and the whole school community offer gender-responsive career orientation that help deconstruct false images of technology and their biased connection to gender stereotypes. We commissioned three country case studies on this issue jointly with UNESCO for our 2020 Gender Report.

In Botswana, the overall share of women in TVET increased marginally over 1995–2018, from 31% to 35%. Their numbers also remain low in STEM subjects. In 2018 women still made up a lower share of those enrolled in science (40%), and even lower in engineering, manufacturing and construction (29%). This is despite the fact that women accounted for 59% of the student population.

In 2006, a Gender Reference Committee was set up to conduct gender awareness campaigns and make education gender-sensitive. Since 1995, a comprehensive and compulsory guidance and counselling programme, with material on gender stereotypes, has been offered from pre-primary to tertiary education. Its curriculum was developed in 1995, and pre-service and in-service guidance and counselling training was offered to teachers.

In 2011, the Committee revisited its strategy to enhance female participation in traditionally male-dominated careers. It developed a policy, an action plan and a poster campaign. In partnership with industry and tertiary education institutions, it organized career fairs, and forums on girls in mathematics and science. The Human Resource Development Council, the semi-autonomous body responsible for skills development in the country, provides annual training to help school and career counsellors provide career guidance free of gender bias and stereotypes. However, an overall framework on how to facilitate inclusion of girls and women into TVET and STEM is lacking.

In Germany, the share of girls in STEM increased from 12% in 1999 to 19% in 2017. Schools are responsible for providing counselling for vocational or career orientation. However, gender aspects are not central to these measures.

Two nationwide activities supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research are, however, looking at the issue. The first, Komm-mach-MINT (Come do STEM) is an online platform intended to support girls and women in choosing further study and careers. It provides information on STEM for secondary and university students, parents, teachers and organizations. The second, Klischeefrei (Cliché free), offers material for teachers and counsellors to use in their classes, aiming to remove gender stereotypes in all career and study paths for girls and boys from pre-primary level up to university and employment.

In the United Arab Emirates, women’s access to and participation in TVET and STEM grew between 1995 and 2017. However, women are still under-represented, particularly in engineering and construction. While the share of men and women is equal in ICT, female students are over-represented in certain STEM fields, including health and mathematics.

New education infrastructure and national strategies have been introduced to address the issue. The Ministry of Education Strategy 2010–2020 introduced a formal student counselling structure and programme to be implemented in schools. In 2014, the National Admissions and Placement Office of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research began providing annual academic counselling for secondary school students and their parents in public and private schools. However, neither the strategy nor its implementation makes any reference to gender or to whether programmes and counsellor training and support include gender-responsive practices. The same is true of more recent policies and long-term plans drafted at the federal level, including the Education 2020 Strategy, UAE Vision 2021, National Strategy for Higher Education 2030 and 2018 National Strategy for Advanced Innovation.

This issue matters. It directly influences career prospects and equality in work opportunities.

Gender gaps in career expectations are related to deeply ingrained gender-stereotyped norms about which careers are suitable for men and women. They are passed on to children by families, teachers and wider societies. Evidence shows that parents are more likely to expect adolescent sons to work in STEM occupations, even when daughters perform as well as their male classmates in STEM subjects in class.

Technology reflects its developers’ values, yet women are largely absent from the frontiers of technological innovation, where job growth is expected and pay typically is highest. Globally, it is shocking that only 6% of mobile application and software developers are female. Women account for less than 1% of the Silicon Valley applicant pool for technical jobs in artificial intelligence and data science.

A lack of gender diversity in this field of work is a real concern given the increasing influence of big data and algorithms in our day-to-day life. Countries need to include mandatory gender-responsive school counselling and career orientation to deconstruct false images of technology and their biased connection to gender stereotypes. This calls for professional training in gender-responsive guidance for teachers and counsellors. Career guidance programmes should also aim to raise awareness among parents, the most influential socialization agents. Hands-on experiences and internships can allow female students to see that their skills are valuable in technical occupations.

The impact of school counselling necessarily has limitations, since companies retain some part of the responsibility with their hiring policies, but on today of all days it must be recognised as critical first step in preventing education from stemming girls’ potential in traditionally male-dominated fields.


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