Getting More Girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

(Active Citizens’ Facilitator 2014-2015. British Council, Nigeria)

The Science, Technology, engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields are today attracting increased attention because of the role of the STEM field in our world today. The technological advancement that has seen our world turned in to a global village, where we can communicate, travel, interact at various levels within short time lapses, cannot be sustained without training and advancement in the STEM fields.

 Challenges, however, exists in getting girls to study the STEM fields. Why is it important to get more girls in to STEM? As I have always stated, the benefits derived from the advancement that is achieved through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is not limited to one gender. 

Scientific solutions to problems that bedevil the world in medicine, in the impacts of technology and in healthcare, in engineering that makes household chores easier to name a few, require inputs from both men and women (boys and girls). More women (girls) in science will mean that the solutions that science provides are not just tailored to the needs of a single gender.

How then do we get more girls to study the STEM fields and go on to pursue a career in science?  It is possible to get more girls in STEM and we are slowly getting there through a mix of Lecture tours, outreach programs, mentorship and role modeling. 

There are however, constraints associated with girls pursuing a study in these fields in Nigeria in general and in northern Nigeria in particular. The road to the pursuit of an academic degree in STEM is lined with obstacles that the young girls will have to overcome. I use northern Nigeria as a case study in illustrating the challenges young girls may have to contend with:

Duration of an academic degree in STEM
The STEM fields have an average duration of 4-5 years. A young girl is likely to start her first degree at the age of 16 years by the National University Commission (NUC) regulations. She is therefore likely to complete her course of study at the age of 20-21 years on the average. 

In many northern Nigerian homes, young girls are preferred to be married off by the age of 18 years, so a young girl may face the pressure of having to get married while still studying. Some young girls will avoid this pressure by choosing a shorter duration course in the arts or social sciences. In my talks to young girls, I urge them to dig in there and complete the first degree before marriage if possible.  We are looking in to ways to get parents to key in to this idea.

Peer Group Pressure/Fashionable
In the event that it is not the parents preference that the girls marry before completing their studies, the young girls still have to contend with peer-group preference. Seeing her peers are getting married after secondary school or during the undergraduate years, puts a pressure on her to also want same. 

Believe me, I know this; I have a daughter in her first year of study in one of the STEM fields and I watch her attending her secondary school mates’ weddings and baby showers. I have to give extra pep talk to let her know that it is worth the wait to complete her first degree, that she will need extra strength to sustain her grades if she gets married now.

Then again, as I continually point out to young girls that I speak to at outreach programs to encourage girls to study the STEM fields, there is the unavoidable natural process that a young girl falls in love with someone who does not share her dream of pursuing further studies or who prefers another less rigorous course of study. In the light of this, getting more girls in STEM and pursuing a career in STEM will require some other strategies.

In days gone by, girls studying STEM fields had to portray their seriousness in a male-dominated field by not using make-up, not wear fashionable clothes or look feminine. 

This was a put off for girls who wanted to be fashionable, so they went in to ‘more fashionable’ courses. We are currently addressing this by showcasing young girls in STEM who sing, dance, write and read poems and watch fashion channels. The theme chant of the 2015 Visiola Foundation STEM Summer Camp is: STEM GIRLS ROCK!

This requires supporting the young girls, providing them with opportunities to showcase their ability. The mentoring process for young girls is gaining ground and many organizations now organize summer camps for young girls.

Role Models
Showcasing role models to young girls has a powerful inspiring message. It is not enough to tell girls that they can do it or that they have the ability. They will need to see and speak to someone who has done it, been there.

When I tell young girls my story of how I returned to the university ten years after secondary school and already married with three young children and despite all odds, it is easier to tell them; “If I can do it, then you can”. This message resonates with them.

The Visiola Foundation also uses the power of role models. During the 2015 Summer Camp, role models such as Design Engineer Yewande Akinola, others and my humble self were brought in to speak to the girls.

Scholarships and Funding Opportunities
To bring in more girls in STEM, it is important to provide opportunities for them to access funds that will enable them to pursue their desired course of study. Courses in STEM fields (Science: medicine, allied health sciences, biomedical sciences, biotechnology, physics, Technology: computer science, software, IT. Engineering, Mathematics) are expensive. If young girls are to learn well and excel, they require commensurate funding. 

As I told an interviewer who asked what could have made my struggle easier if I had known about it? I had answered that I wished I had known about funding opportunities and scholarships; that I would have made better grades than I did. The constant search for how to make ends meet took its toll and made concentrating solely on my studies difficult.

Awards, Recognition and fellowships
I tell young girls about opportunities they can have for awards, recognition and fellowships. Organizations such as The World Academy of Science (TWAS), Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World (OWSD), L’oreal for Women in Science, The Elsevier Foundation among others all have awards, recognition and fellowships specifically for girls and women. 

I won the Elsevier award in 2015 for the Physics and Mathematics category. If young girls know that they will be recognized and celebrated for their hard work, they will be more willing to put in the required hard work to study and remain and even pursue a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Concluding word
These few lines on how to get more girls in STEM are by no means exhaustive. The inputs from the young girls on what will motivate them more needs to be sought. This could be done by organizing an interactive program of career development for young girls in STEM.
 I would suggest a workshop setting or a retreat- type interactive meeting with young girls.

This British Council proposed the publication of this article as part of activities to mark the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11.