After securing her current job in the oil and gas sector, Mulikat Oyeyemi (not her real name) took about eight months to embark on field assignments after her several requests were rejected by her employer. Her requests were rejected because the organisation, based in Lagos, objected to the posting of female employees to the field. Notably, her male colleagues were assigned different roles in the field with minimal objections.
The case of Mulikat is similar to ordeals experienced by other women in the engineering sector, where the gender gap is still dominant. For engineering, the gap exists right from school to the professional field.
In a report by the Women Technology Empowerment Center (WTEC) referencing the National Bureau of Statistics, women make, on average, just 22% of the total number of engineering and technology university graduates each year.
According to the UNESCO report, ‘Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s education in STEM’, only 35% of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students in higher education globally are women. The dismal figure can be attributed to lack of motivation for girls to develop an interest in STEM.
For instance, at the Agriculture and Bioresources Engineering department at the Minna Federal University of Technology, only eight out of 108 students are girls. Besides the low number of girls, tutors at the institution are at the forefront of spreading gender bias. In one case, a male lecturer at the department reprimanded male students for allowing a girl to get higher scores in one of the courses.
In another instance, at one of the Federal Universities of Technology STEM departments, a lecturer requested that the course representative mobilise some of the few female students to sweep the lecture hall. Whilst the course representative had challenged the lecturer, he insisted that it was absurd for the male students to clean, adding that it was the natural obligation of women.
Globally, the distribution of STEM varies with only a few countries showing equality. Except for a few countries such as Sint Maarten, Tunisia, Algeria, Benin, Oman, Brunei, and Syria, the World Bank reported fewer females than males in 107 of 114 economies. UNESCO also reported that less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.
Additionally, between 1995 to 2020, the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) reported less than 35% representation of women on topics about science and health in the media. Notably, conscious and unconscious structural and non-structural biases continue to be a salient factor for the low number of women in STEM.
In a survey by the WillFran Consulting in partnership with the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (WTEC), 54% of the women interviewed claimed to have experienced barriers to career progression in STEM fields and believe it is difficult to secure funding for startups. Also, for women who left STEM, factors like difficulty in moving up the career ladder, unfair treatment, and discrimination in their fields contributed to their decision. These biases could generally affect girls’ and women’s confidence to succeed in STEM-related courses and specialisations.
In the case of Oyeyemi, her immediate supervisor had hinted to her that enhancing the facility to meet her peculiar need in the field was an undue financial strain on the organisation, considering that she was the only female engineer at the company.
While this does not apply to Mulikat, she revealed that some of her female colleagues in other organisations had shared sleeping rooms with men on the field because the organisation could not afford a single room for one female. The situation is also similar when it comes to sanitation facilities.
Is STEM complex for women?
There is also a popular perception that women are not many in STEM-related fields because it’s complicated. During a banter on women’s inadequate participation in STEM on one of the social media platforms in Nigeria, a male user was quoted to have blamed the low participation on women’s inability to cope with the intellectual demand of the field. “The kind of slander that society gives sex workers is enough to dissuade anyone from going into it; still, we see women trooping there. Women aren’t in STEM because it’s difficult, simple.”
Similarly, in 2017, a member of the Google engineering team released a memo asserting that the biological difference between men and women could be the reason for the unequal representation of women and men in tech and leadership. “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
However, there has been no valid scientific evidence to support these claims. Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, debunked this claim in the publication ‘Bad science and the unisex brain‘. In another research by Harvard Business Review (HBR), the hegemonic masculine culture of engineering is why women leave the profession or do not practice at all and not because of intellectual capacity.
Bridging the Gender Gap
According to the UNCTAD, STEM contributes significantly to the economic, social, and environmental development of a country, leading to sustainable growth. The US Bureau of labour projected that by 2030, tech-related jobs would increase by 13%. It thus becomes essential to prepare more women and girls for such emerging global opportunities.
Mistura (Badru) Yusuf, the Student Affairs Chairperson for the Society of Petroleum Engineers Lagos Section said increasing the number of girls in STEM would require early education and be encouraged to pursue the courses. She explained that the situation had been a significant focus of the society of petroleum engineers through their school outreach programme. The school outreach initiative involves visiting secondary schools to introduce students to different STEM careers and prospects.
Unlimited’s Country Manager for Nigeria, Abimbola Odedeyi, supported Yusuf’s point during the 2022 International Women’s Day (IWD), noting that, Institutions and governments must invest in early education. STEM initiatives to encourage female participation in this field.”
Yusuf also opined that the lack of assurance for succeeding in STEM careers discourages young girls from pursuing the courses, hence advising the need for coordinated mentorship that links girls and successful females to encourage them.
Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, UNESCO introduced the ‘Digital STEM Mentorship Programme’ to advance their interest in the field. This activity is being implemented using voice recordings of STEM role models and mentors and is aired through the mainstream media and community radio stations. With the radio, over 12 million students, including boys, were reached.
Francisca Nneka Okeke, a Nigerian physicist and the first female head of the Department of Physics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, stated that the lack of encouragement for young women and girls to develop interests in STEM poses a considerable obstacle. Therefore, opening new doors requires a range of shifts in both mindset and, in some cases, culture. She also mentioned that women’s scholarships and support for scientists are scarce; hence, more should be instituted, citing an example of the L’Oreal-UNESCO programme. Experts have also included the need for policies that will boost the participation of women and girls in STEM. Mistura suggested that such policies would help check structural and non-structural biases that dissuade girls and women from STEM fields.