We need to encourage girl learners to embrace STEM subjects

Women having a discussion around a table

By Wanjira Kamwere, Business Development Manager, MySkills4Afrika Programme

It’s evident by the significant investments into skills development and educational programmes that Microsoft believes in upskilling our youth to have the right skills to succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But even as we strive to include as many young learners in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects as possible, our girl learners are lagging behind.

According to the UNESCO report, ‘Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s education in STEM’, only 35 percent of STEM students in higher education globally are women. This gaping gender gap is especially concerning when we consider that STEM careers are referred to as the jobs of the future. UNESCO notes that a strong gender imbalance exists globally, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, in regard to women’s representation in STEM fields. According to the United Nations Institute of Statistics (UIS) less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women. Numerous studies have found that women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers.

There are many complex reasons why girls and women are so underrepresented in STEM subjects and fields. Conscious and unconscious biases, social norms and cultural expectations frequently influence the type and quality of education girl learners receive and the choices offered to them.

Women need to be represented – for many reasons

It’s important to have diversity represented in STEM, and not just for the sake of numbers. When women are pushed out of careers in STEM by systems of bias, this influences the products and services that STEM organisations create. Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Machine Learning bias is a recognised concern for organisations developing products and services using this technology.

Only 26 percent of AI professionals globally are female, according to the 2020 World Economic Forum report on the Global Gender Gap, which also found that current trajectories mean sub-Saharan Africa will only close its gender gap in 95 years – another reason why Microsoft is investing in women’s STEM development.

We need to start early

The PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) report titled, ‘Why don’t more girls choose to pursue a science career’, noted that the gender gap in STEM subjects is already evident among 15-year-olds, and that boys are more confident and interested in broad science topics despite similar scores in science and maths among all genders. Part of this is likely due to societal pressures and the unconscious bias and stereotypes among some communities that science is ‘only for boys’.

It’s vital that we engage with girls at primary and secondary school levels to raise the visibility of STEM subjects as a potential career trajectory. One such collaboration is the DigiGirlz programme, which inspires high school girls to pursue STEM subjects by providing them with the opportunity to interact with Microsoft employees and receive computer and technology training.

Each year, Microsoft hosts DigiGirlz Day across the world, including in the Middle East and Africa. The one-or three-day events see students interact with Microsoft employees and managers to gain career guidance, information about technology and business roles. During the pandemic, these events will be virtual events, allowing girls from Kenya, Rwanda, Canada and the US to engage in the first International Virtual Microsoft DigiGirlz Panel and Bootcamp.

Staying the course in a STEM career

Research also shows a sharp drop-off in women who initially study STEM subjects. Women leave STEM disciplines in disproportionate numbers during their studies, during the transition to the workplace and even during their careers. Mentorship programmes can help encourage women to pursue these careers.

Microsoft 4Afrika launched WISE4Afrika in Kenya in partnership with Strathmore University, offering mentorship to young students for nine months, in collaboration with women at Microsoft India. WISE4Afrika is a manifestation of Mentors across Borders, an initiative pioneered by women tech leaders at the Microsoft India Development Centre and Microsoft Kenya. It aims to inspire women in software and engineering to pursue rewarding careers in technology, by equipping them with the learning, tools and readiness for growth, innovation and social change. Through this model, we’re encouraging collaboration and empowerment of women.

The Microsoft SkillsLabs programmes, although not solely focused on promoting female candidates, have had various women completing apprenticeships at SkillsLabs across Africa. One example is Grace Kapinga, a refugee from DRC, who completed the programme at the Dzaleka SkillsLab in Malawi. She plans to use the knowledge she acquired about software programming and development to secure a job or establish her own business. Currently 30 percent of SkillsLab apprentices are female, so there is still work to be done towards a more equitable gender balance.

Something else that has been noted is how seldom young women see aspirational women figures portrayed in STEM roles and careers in the media. Here, through the MySKills4Afrika programme, women volunteers have an important part to play as visible role models who have successfully forged careers in STEM subjects – one such person is Miryama Abdulaziz, Territory Channel Manager from Eastern Canada, who has just completed a MySkills4Afrika volunteer project with interns from the Interns4Afrika programme. Miryama worked with a group of 50+ enthusiastic, smart and very ambitious young individuals. Leveraging Teams as a platform, she hosted group sessions and 1:1 coaching sessions on career development and Microsoft Technical exam preparation, supporting the interns to attain their certifications.

We need to strive to effect gender parity

According to the World Bank, bringing more women into digital jobs can help transform the economy   by increasing women’s earnings and financial independence. But this opportunity will be lost without the skills needed to drive inclusion in the tech sector. That’s why it is a social, moral and economic necessity to ensure young girls and women in the Africa are given the skills to master technology and increase the number of future-ready professionals.


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