The societal stereotype that girls should play with dolls and remain conservative while boys are left to explore their worlds and the conception that boys are good at Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects than girls, have been outlined as but some of the impediments to women making it in STEM careers.
These sentiments were shared by panelists at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) Women in Stem Seminar recently. The seminar brought together female school students from secondary schools in and around Gaborone and women in STEM careers in a networking session to discuss reasons why there was a concerning number of women enrolled in STEM subjects at tertiary level.
Amongst the panelists was BIUST Electrical and Electronics Lecturer Dr Bokani Mtengi who lamented that girl children were mostly given dolls to play with at a young age because they are perceived as soft and fragile. “Give that girl a toy truck to play with!” she advised parents with girl children. Mtengi highlighted that kids are malleable and opening their horizons at an early age helps them explore their world and gives them an opportunity to be whatever they want to be without succumbing to societal pressures.
“Giving a girl child a doll feeds vanity into her sub-conscience. She will only see the prettiness and aspire to achieve the same for her life, a meaningless endeavor,” she reckoned.
Mtengi lamented how she, as a young woman in a STEM career at one of the country’s biggest science institutions, is always outnumbered in the boards within which she sits. “We have a long way and a lot of work to do to ensure there is gender balance and female representation within STEM career industries,” she conceded.
Another panelist, BIUST Chief Technician, Lerato Mohutsiwa-Makwala said the reiterated that the society, through segregation of roles, has condemned the girl child to home making other than becoming anything a man can become. “At senior school, it was undisputable that boys did studies in woodwork and girls do home economics and it was normal,” she remembered. She noted that this segregation has resulted in there being fewer women pursuing STEM careers.
Despite this grim acknowledgment, the Chief Technician noted that the status quo has since shanged and there are women who are thriving in their STEM studies who eventually become power houses in their different fields.
For his part, BIUST Vice Chancellor, Professor Otlogetswe Totolo worryingly stated that the national examination results for both Junior Certificate and Botswana General Certificate of Secondary School in mathematics and science have been declining steadily over the years. “This is happening at a time when the country is positioning itself to transition from a resource based economy to a knowledge based one,” he highlighted. He said the declining result should be a red flag since the country intends to make strides in the technological world.
“If transition to a knowledge economy has to be a reality, Botswana should be fundamentally strong in STEM subjects which will lead to innovation,” he said.
The Vice Chancellor also said the average performance of girls was 400.3 compared to 381.1 for boys in Mathematics while Science was 402.6for girls and 380.7 for boys. He however noted that historically, boys have outperformed girls in science subjects especially at senior secondary level. “The turn of events show the benefits of interventions that have been put in place to help the girl child to have her fair share in the STEM arena,” he said.
Totolo also noted that there is need to intensify efforts to deal with a mind-set that says STEM subjects are difficult. “Even though females out-perform their male counterparts at pre-tertiary level, the number of female professionals in the STEM area does not attest to that better performance,” said the Vice Chancellor, before pointing out that the intention is not for boys performance to drop but rather to have an all-round improvement that puts the country at a vantage point.