In Nigeria, the road for women considering pursuing an academic degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects is lined with obstacles. Why is this? And what can be done to remedy it? Dr Rabia Salihu Sa’id, from the University of Bayero, explains ahead of the UN International Day of the Girl Child on 11 October 2015.
Male domination in STEM subjects is stark and in Nigeria women make up only 17 per cent of all science researchers. This persistent gender divide is now attracting attention.
STEM degrees are long
On average, STEM degrees last four or five years. In Nigeria, where most young women pursuing higher education start at the age of 16, and traditionally in the Northern states are expected to marry at the age of 18, this can be problematic. Some girls feel more comfortable choosing a shorter course in the arts or social sciences, so they can avoid the pressure of getting married while still studying.
STEM subjects are male-dominated
For young women, choosing to do a STEM degree can mean breaking away from the social norm of marrying after high school or during undergraduate studies and having children. In Nigeria, among other countries, STEM students are predominantly male. In many societies a girl’s choice to study science can be understood as a decision that weakens her identity as a female and making her appear less feminine. Personally, I have seen girls studying in this field who have felt obliged to portray their seriousness in a male-dominated field by not using make-up, deliberately avoiding wearing fashionable clothes and trying to hide their femininity. This image, combined with the pressure of marriage and motherhood, has dissuaded many girls from studying STEM subjects in favour of courses that are considered more appropriate for their gender.
There are few female role models in STEM
When trying to encourage young women to do STEM subjects, it is not enough to tell them that they can do it. Introducing girls to inspiring women who are experts in these fields can be powerful. For example, when I tell young women my own story of overcoming the odds, I can see that they feel more able to do the same. I returned to university ten years after completing secondary school, already married with three young children, and completed my degree. Having someone standing in front of them saying, ‘If I can do it, then you can too’, gives a strong message of hope and can make challenging social norms seem more possible.
STEM subjects are expensive
STEM courses last longer than courses in arts and social sciences, so the financial commitment is greater. This means that women wanting to pursue these courses require significantly more money to complete them. As a student I struggled to support myself financially, and this had a real impact on my grades. So when asked what would have made my own personal struggle easier, I always say that I wished I had known about the funding opportunities and scholarships available.
Today, there are more opportunities available to girls. Organisations such as the World Academy of Science, the Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World, L’Oreal for Women in Science, the Elsevier Foundation, and the British Council Ghana all have awards, recognition and fellowships specifically for girls and women. The Visiola Foundation also provides scholarships for girls to study STEM, and an annual week-long STEM Summer Camp to pique the interest of women in the STEM fields from an early age.