By Jeanette Pelizzon
The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM, are currently dominated by men. Globally women account for only 21% of researchers working in engineering, physics and computer sciences[i], while only three Fortune 500 technology companies are led by women[ii]. The lack of female representation proves problematic when you take into account that in the next decade more than 80% of jobs will require technology skills[iii]. One thing fueling the gender disparity is that women and girls are denied access to both the education and technology that allow men to excel in STEM fields. If 600 million additional women and girls were online it would boost worldwide GDP by 18 billion USD[iv]. While these are global statistics, the rates of women participating in STEM education or holding a career the field are far lower in developing countries. How can diaspora members work to increase the involvement of women and girls in STEM back home?
Infographic produced by Women Deliver
The World Bank and the Consortium of African Diasporas in the US (CADUS) recently hosted a conference entitled “Effective African Women’s Empowerment through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” which brought together government officials, practitioners and civil society groups to discuss the various initiatives and barriers to women’s success happening in African countries.
The conference was held in Washington, D.C with groups skyping in from Cote d’Ivore, Mali, Burkina Faso and Cameroon. Each speaker offered a unique view into how an increased focus on STEM can benefit developing countries, how to increase young girls and women’s involvement within the sector and how the diaspora can aide in these initiatives.
Breakout sessions encouraged attendees to contribute by discussing the roles public, private, academia and civil society should play, as well as how international development organizations can expand the role of women in STEM worldwide. Attendees were passionately in favor of creating change at the local level before trying to implement top down initiatives, promoting public-private partnerships with SMART policies, and for the private sector to aide government entities in building their capacity. Representatives from the various countries in attendance expressed the desire for development objectives related to women in STEM to be determined locally, instead of being prescribed from abroad. International development agencies can help meet these objectives by working in alignment with government entities to implement strategies.
Aside from government and development initiatives, women pursuing STEM careers in Africa expressed the explicit need for mentorship and networking opportunities. Lack of mentorship leads to women not realizing that they can have a profession in STEM. Speakers said most women in Africa don’t realize that STEM is an option for them or that women in their own country are succeeding in the profession due to the lack of publicity it gets.
Members of the diaspora who work in STEM or have an affinity for the fields can encourage young girls in Africa to pursue science and math based degrees. While there is a noticeable lack of groups working in this area, diaspora entities such as the Networks of Diasporas in Engineering and Science (NODES) and various LinkedIn groups also provide ways to get involved in promoting STEM to girls back home.
By promoting women in STEM both in countries of residence and in countries of heritage, diaspora members can create a broader network of women to act as mentors who can inspire future generations of girls to pursue careers in STEM.
[iii] “Why the Focus on STEM?” Massachusettes STEM Advisory Council. 2011