Dr Firdausi Qadri of Icddr,b, Dr Salma Sultana of Model Livestock Advance-ment Foundation and Prof Samia Subrina of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET)—three Bangladeshi women scientists have recently made us proud. They were included in the sixth edition of the Asian Scientist 100 list, which is a Singapore-based science and technology magazine. The list was published to celebrate the success of the region's "best and brightest, highlighting their achievements across a range of scientific disciplines." A few months ago, another young Bangladeshi astrophysicist, Tonima Tasnim Ananna, topped the 2020 edition of Science News magazine's list "The SN 10: Scientists to Watch", for her outstanding work and research on black holes.
These achievements are significant, as underrepresentation of women and girls in the workforce and in higher education with regard to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) remains a serious problem. Although women around the world are defying gender stereotypes and making meaningful contributions in science, there is still a long way to go.
Without STEM education and work opportunities, women will not be able to realise their full potential. They risk continuing to be unemployed or in low-paying jobs that may not exist in the near future due to technological changes. They will also miss out on future jobs, as shifting economies demand diversified skills.
According to the 2000 UNICEF report titled "Towards an equal future: Reimagining girls' education through STEM", women and girls face difficulties in accessing quality learning opportunities in STEM. Girls tend to outperform boys in reading skills in most regions, but they are under-represented amongst top performers in STEM subjects. Girls' career expectations are marred by gender stereotypes. More boys than girls aspire to a career as a scientist and engineer (in 72 out of 78 countries) or an ICT professional (in all countries). However, more girls than boys are interested in a career in the health sector (in all countries).
Research has shown that by age 15, girls begin to lose confidence in STEM subjects, unlike boys. By the age of 16, only 25 percent of girls asked to draw a scientist will picture a female. This loss of confidence is a direct result of the challenges women face when pursuing STEM education and careers. Stereotypes about STEM as masculine subjects and social norms about what girls can and should do are reproduced in teachers' and parental expectations. This shapes girls' beliefs and attitudes towards STEM.
Begum Rokeya wrote in Motichur in 1904: "We shall do whatever is needed to be equal to men. If we have to earn independently in order to gain independence then we should do that… Why shouldn't we earn? Don't we have hands, legs, and intellect? Can't we engage in business with the amount of energy that we spend in household work in the husband's place?… Why are we crying if the girls are not married off. Educate your daughters properly and let them enter the workplace; they can earn their own livelihood."
While we have come a long way from the time of Begum Rokeya in terms of girls' education, it is important to examine what girls are studying. Is education preparing them to be an active member of society? Technology is influencing various aspects of our lives including education, employment, communication, healthcare, entertainment, etc., and will shape our future. It is extremely critical that we engage more girls and women in STEM if we do not want the world to be continued to be designed by and for men.
Bangladeshi society places a disproportionate emphasis on women's reproductive and caregiving roles. As a result, they face a lot of barriers to excelling in their chosen professional fields, including STEM. I have known many young women with brilliant academic results in STEM subjects at the university level in Bangladesh. Most of them could not dream freely about their careers, as family and society posed restrictions on what is expected from them. The following could be done to facilitate active participation of girls and women in STEM related education and jobs.
Celebrating female role models is very important. Nearly half of all girls interested in STEM do not know a woman in a STEM career. In a recent interview, Tonima Tasnim Ananna mentioned that her interest in astronomy grew from an early age (five years) when her mother told her stories about the Pathfinder spacecraft landing on Mars. Since then, Tonima dreamt of becoming a scientist and could not visualise being anything else. Parents must raise girls in a confident way, which will inspire them to be ambitious and courageous in realising their dreams. Parents and caregivers should choose books, toys, animation films, etc. for children very thoughtfully so that they can be themselves without feeling confined by gender stereotypes.
Do we want our girls to aspire to be scientists and reach leadership positions in their chosen fields? If yes, popular culture (television, magazine, drama, films, advertisements, etc.) must stop showing women in passive roles, obsessed with beauty and performing household and caregiving responsibilities only. There should be conscious efforts by all to portray successful women in STEM and other sectors.
Evidence from different parts of the world suggests that when educators talk to girls about STEM and actively encourage them, girls become more interested in these subjects. It is important to engage girls in hands-on STEM activities and/or let them shadow a STEM job for a certain period. Both men and women well-established in STEM careers can be mentors to young girls.
State and employers should develop new policies on parental and family related leave and ensure that men perform child-rearing as well as other household responsibilities. This will contribute to changing dynamics within families and will support women in building careers in various fields. Social norms should be changed, and all members of society must learn to treat men and women equally, and value women's academic and professional achievements. Only then will girls and women be able to contribute to all fields, including STEM, according to the best of their abilities.
Laila Khondkar is an international development worker.