Education, Gender Equality, Girls In STEM, Leadership, Sustainable Development
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A Smart Thing To Do: Data on Women in Higher Education & STEM

“When we talk about improving women’s lives, education is an issue that comes up over and over again as an equalizer, because when women and girls have access to an education, they can accomplish anything.” – United State of Women

But do all forms of education create equity where gender disparities are greatest? Although we need to work toward improving women’s and girls’ access to education on all levels, real disparities deepen in secondary and higher education environments around the world. Significant progress has been made as 2/3 of developing nations have achieved gender parity when it comes to access to primary education. Despite significant progress made on girls’ school enrollment in the past decade, 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school in developing countries. The situation is worst for the poorest rural girls in South and West Asia: only 13% complete lower secondary school.

If we agree with UNICEF that educating girls is “both an intrinsic right and a critical lever to reaching other development objectives,” then advocating for a higher output of female university graduates and an equal presence of women in STEM fields should ultimately be the goal. So, why are so few women completing secondary and higher education studies and why are so few represented in STEM fields?

Adolescent girls attending secondary school, who would continue on with higher education, face many disrupting economic and social demands. This includes everything from household responsibilities, child labor, child marriage, caring for children, gender-based violence, and FGM. Challenges of marital and family obligations in secondary education years truly hinders young women’s opportunities to continue education at universities or in STEM fields. Recent estimates show that 1/3 of girls in the developing world are married before 18 and 1/3 give birth before age 20. Yet higher and secondary education helps prevent these issues: if all girls received a secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would drop by 64% from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.

In countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, formal or written threats to close girls’ schools have fueled gender motivated school attacks. In similar places, millions of young women often face verbal, physical, and sexual harassment should they aspire to study at higher learning institutions. Even those that don’t face direct physical threats are often hindered by deep social stigmas associated with women pursuing higher education. Universities in Africa continue to be male-dominated and women, especially those from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have a very low presence in these institutions.

Despite all these challenges, we know that secondary and higher education for women is:

  1. Lifesaving – If all women had a secondary education, child deaths would be cut in half, saving 3 million lives.
  2. Healthy – If all women had a secondary education, 12 million children would be saved from stunting from malnutrition.
  3. Safe – Almost 60% fewer girls would become pregnant under 17 years in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they all had a secondary education.
  4. Profitable – Education narrows pay gaps between men and women. In Pakistan, women with a primary education earn only 51% what men earn, but with a secondary education, they earn 70% what men earn. In Jordan, women with a primary education earn 53% what men earn, but with a secondary education, they earn 67% what men earn. More money in the hands of female workers, especially through careers in higher paying STEM fields, boosts economies and would bolster GDPs.
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The Obama Administration supports more opportunities for girls in STEM fields. Here President Barack Obama is seen with young girls participating in a coding event.

In places like the United States and the EU – women are earning more secondary education certificates and college degrees than men. But despite progress, “women still occupy only 28% of STEM jobs and comprise just 37% of STEM college graduates” in the States. Numbers of women studying STEM fields peaked in early 2000s and now we have seen a decrease in many fields since 1991. For example, women made up 30% of US computer science bachelor degrees in 1991 and in 2011 only made up 17% of computer science graduates.

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In the EU, there are more women in STEM fields, but that doesn’t mean we have actually been able to remove the disparity there – just as many men are entering those fields of study and the gender gap has remained constant.

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“But what’s the point of girls overcoming so many barriers to get to school if they don’t learn anything?”
– Malala Yousafzai

If we are going to work hard for girls to be in school, then let’s work to assure that they are receiving a quality education that includes secondary and tertiary studies. Let’s be sure education allows girls to feel empowered to choose whatever fields most interest them and equips them to be active in all sectors to bring about change. Our pride in global efforts to reach girls with primary school needs to be overcome as we work to build women as leaders. Anything short of a full education, means disparities will still exist if women cannot be equipped to be considered equally educated and capable to lead alongside men.

“The problem of access lies at all levels, and perhaps is often ignored at the highest levels where we desperately need women doctors, scholars, engineers, scientists and thinkers.”
– Muhammad H. Zaman 

Without higher education, women will continue to be under-represented in leadership roles in society and decision making in all sectors. UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, who launched the HeForShe movement said, “A good university is like a tiny utopia – it’s a miniature model of how the whole of society could look.” Change starts in higher education and with it women can have equal roles in business meetings, political cabinets, and research and design firms.

UN Women's HeForShe Campaign Special Event

Actress Emma Watson for the United Nations’ HeForShe campaign. Photo: UN Women.

Ultimately, pursuing higher education should never solely be about career. If it is only about career opportunities then we should clearly make vocational paths available to women and champion both sexes having equity in each. But if it is about opportunity, creativity, about including women in the processes of government, leadership, and any career field, then we need to champion higher education as a whole. Letting girls be smart, is a smart thing to do.

The percentages in the illustration refer to to following numbers and statistics:

  • If all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 64%, from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.
  • Although good progress has been made on girls’ school enrollment in the past decade, in developing countries 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school. The situation for the poorest rural girls is dire: only 13% of the poorest rural adolescent girls in South and West Asia complete lower secondary school.
  • Almost 60% fewer girls would become pregnant under 17 years in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they all had a secondary education.
  • In the EU-28, of all university graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction-related studies (second most common types of degrees in the EU), only 3.9% are female.
  • 12% of women in higher education are in in sciences and engineering vs. 24% of men. (http://www.lacs.ps/documentsShow.aspx?ATT_ID=7778 UN Women)
  • Numbers of women in STEM fields peaked in early 2000s and now we have seen a decrease in every field since 1991. For example, women made up 30% of computer science bachelor degrees in 1991 and in 2011 only make up 17% of computer science graduates.

Featured Illustration: Elina Tuomi

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