Gender paradox: less equality means more women in sciences
Countries with a wide gender gap boast higher female enrollment in science and maths degrees
In a twist of irony, a new study has found that in some countries with the most dire gender inequality, female enrollment in STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths) degrees is highest.
The research, by Leeds Beckett University, found that in a country like Finland, where adolescent girls outperform boys in science literacy, a startling gender gap emerges in tertiary education. “Finland has one of the world’s largest gender gaps in college degrees in STEM fields”, according to the study published in Psychological Science.
Likewise, in many of the Gulf states which are thought to lag behind in gender equality, female enrollment in STEM degrees is higher than many Western countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia.
An example is in engineering: In Bahrain and Oman, engineering faculties are much closer to a gender balance than in America and Sweden.One possible reason is women in Gulf countries seeking the key that will unlock a door to economic freedom.
According to the researchers, “life-quality pressures in less gender-equal countries promote girls’ and women’s engagement with STEM subjects”.
They don’t necessarily go on to get jobs in those fields, but still, the education impetus is there.
In South Africa, according to Unesco, about 40% of those in STEM jobs are female, but anecdotal evidence suggests this not-too-bad statistic belies a world in which women sometimes have to push a little harder.
Maphefo Twala, a water specialist who spoke recently at African Utility Week, studied microbiology at the University of Pretoria and consults for the Department of Water and Sanitation.
Her work often involves collecting samples of water from different areas.
“Sometimes as a female microbiologist, you have to go and collect a sample from a dodgy area. As a woman, you think harder about your safety. Or you are told you can’t do it.”But, she adds, you have to keep proving yourself against the odds.
“They’ve got to see the determination and the hunger in you,” she said of female scientists wanting to further their career, “and this is going to be a long road but it is important that we support one another.”
Eunice Biritwum, a former CEO from Ghana’s electric utility industry, said that for many years she was “the only female in the sector”.
She said one of the only ways forward in such a social climate is to “identify the men who are there for you and believe in your abilities, and then align yourself with them”.
She said a moment that has always stuck with her was when a male expert at an industry gathering said to her: “You must be so tired when you get home. You work as a CEO by day and then at night you have to take care of all your children and your husband, cook food …”Not sure if he meant well or was “trying to put her in the place she belonged”, she asked him what made him think she had a family and husband.
He had no response.
“You need to ensure you have a network of women you can call on,” she said, adding that she and other women had formed the Executive Women Network which facilitated mutual support and “helped bring younger women into the fold”.
Nicky van der Poel, outage director at Lesedi Nuclear Services, heads up a team of 68, of whom 11 are female.
She says: “When I joined this department, I was the only female. I had limited technical knowledge [because I was from a commercial background] but I was willing to learn from others and ‘go the extra mile’.”
This meant working “extra hours” and “sacrificing family time to master my own destiny”.
Van der Poel encourages other young women to find their passion and see obstacles as healthy changes.
“Do what you love, and find pleasure in the ever-changing world,” she says.