#Standtall: A Reflection Challenging the Theory of Dominant Discourse in the STEM Sector

April 17, 2015 | By

Why Sustain Women Under- Representation in STEM Sector:

Since the advent of gender mainstreaming, all sectors of the economy have resounded the need for gender sensitive policies and decisions in society. However, the extent to which gender sensitive planning has been undertaken and implemented leaves a lot to be desired. A focus of this article is on the STEM sector under which the energy sector is well harboured.

It is notable that under- representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) classes and consequently workforce is not just an African phenomenon but seemingly a world trend. From a cost benefit point of view, this translates significantly to the society and economy’s stance due to the role women play in the overall development process. Currently being in the academic field, it is easier to get gender- disaggregated data in the academic sector than it is in the STEM workforce; this posses the first strategic challenge to monitor and evaluate level of equal participation of women in the STEM sectors. It is estimated that barely more than 20% of STEM female graduates use their qualifications in STEM occupations compared to over 50% of their male colleagues. We have read published organizational development articles and writings that demonstrate that the inclusion of women in workplace teams overall improve organizational performance and profitability not with standing governance. It is however ironical that the small proportion of STEM graduates who get careers in the relevant sectors does not manage to get to the top cohort of the senior management. The relative proportions tend to fall within 10%- 14%. Women directors are rarely Chairs of Boards in the energy sector for example.

There has been an increase in proportion of women in the academic staff in most of the STEM areas. However the proportion decreases as one observes from number of female researchers, lecturers, senior researchers, senior lecturers and professors in full- time employment. This however implies derived under- representation of STEM women in all the academies, learned and professional bodies compared to the pool of female STEM graduates. This is correlated to the women under- representation in public bodies and/ or positions. Using the energy sector as an example, this answers the very reason for absence of active gender mainstreaming policy, programmes and projects. This is amplified by a glaring domination of the management of the energy sector by men, and an absence of specialized training programmes on energy in institutions of higher learning.

In addition, the energy sector policy does not clearly articulate the linkage between energy and poverty which would help amplify the inherent gender dimensions. For instance the level of awareness of gender and energy perspectives remains low. A quick analysis of the Women and Energy projects by GTZ in Africa indicate limited success of rural energy related development projects can also be explained by the poor targeting of gender differentiated needs. Women have generally been viewed as the principle destroyers of natural resources through harvesting of biomass energy yet at the same time are seen as victims of biomass energy crisis and more recently being viewed to play as critical role in the natural resource management through their traditional knowledge.

As we encourage ourselves to ‘put our high heals on’, the gender gap in the STEM sector cannot be bridged by women alone while shutting men out of the transformation process.  This is also attributed to the social pressures that play a role in the way women are represented in the STEM sectors. A degree in STEM field is only a gateway into an organization and work smart to climb the ladders. Although under- representation of women is not unique to the STEM field, the nature and organization of science and technology create participation and progression of women. Key characteristics of careers in the field are: high international mobility, long academic period of qualification and high career insecurity. Science and technology get obsolete too fast making it difficult for women to re- enter after taking a break for their families. Accordingly this may account for the rise of part- time employment contracts in this field.

Another barrier is associated with what constitutes ‘merit’ during recruitment. Women tend to be disadvantaged when the construction of merit is based on un- interrupted career trajectory, full- time and research success. Society views a woman who is clearly competent in a masculine job to be less likable; yet both competence and likeability are needed for success in the work place.  The writer’s friend for example has not pursued her PhD simply because of family responsibilities. Evidence also show that even when grant- awarding processes are gender- neutral, women are less likely to aply for funding and when they do more often than not apply for smaller amounts of money for shorter periods of time.

Is Women Under- Representation An Issue: What Next: The writer’s friend is a founder of a national non- governmental organization in Kenya called Women United Against Poverty in Kenya (WAUPIK). The identified possible ways by which the above discussed issue could be addressed comes as a dedication to women organizations.  This however requires political leadership commitment to a national strategy on women in STEM.  A Gender and STEM government champion could be appointed at ministerial level. Universities and institutes need to put in place positive incentive schemes and embed minimum standards as conditions for research funding. The STEM sector need to bring a different approach in leadership and take into account those women serves in various roles within society- they are mothers, wives as well as professionals.

National policies within the STEM sectors need to lay the framework upon which cost effective, affordable and adequate quality services will be made available to the domestic economy on a sustainable basis. For example, the Kenya Sessional Paper on Energy explicitly asserts that deliberate steps will be taken to integrate female gender in the policy formulation and management of the energy sector. Nonetheless, the policy is silent on how that gender balance is to be achieved. The fact that there are very few women professionals in the energy sector means that deliberate attempts to enhance women’s access to training will not achieve significant results until the number of women professionals in the non traditional fields is substantially increased.

The identified alternatives are justifiable solutions because: Political will ensure that occupational segregation is addressed particularly the impact on women in STEM. This would further ensure systematic follow up through appropriate monitoring and feedback arrangements. A Gender and STEM champion would help drive a cross- governmental, cross- departmental and integrated strategy to tackle gender segregation in education and workplace with particular responsibility for the STEM sectors. Universities and institutes can create senior role models for young female researchers and professionals in the STEM sectors that can help in changing the prevailing retrogressive cultures.

The increasing gender awareness at the policy and operational levels will ultimately provide the requisite enabling impetus for engendering energy programmes and projects. The current limitations on the availability of energy services create barriers to socio-economic development thus adversely affecting gender relations. The policies are thus set to address such issues as access and availability of energy supply, electricity tariffs and pricing and infrastructure construction. The policy mentions other pertinent issues including community participation and gender equity in human resource development. However, an analysis of the key issues on the electricity, petroleum and renewable energy sub sectors, the policy document is silent on the gender dimensions such as gender-based interventions in energy production and use as challenges.

Women organizations engage directly with the grassroots women who play a major decision making role in determining the destiny of society. They have the capacity to integrate gender issues in their day- to- day programming to make easy infiltration of advocacy targeted to enhance young and girls education in the STEM field. As a sustainability strategy, the organizations should endeavour to develop innovative energy and/ or STEM related project proposals in the process of seeking donor funding. Organizations can ride on the existing national policies and through advocacy; partnership and linkages influence implementation and where appropriate review of national gender policies to raise the level of gender awareness in all sectors of society and economy. Women organizations in Kenya for example have the opportunity to foster their gender mainstreaming agenda for the following reasons:

  • The Energy Act sets out legal framework upon which energy, poverty and gender concerns can be addressed and implemented especially with the gender secretariat within the Ministry of energy.
  • There is continued collaboration with international partners in gender sensitive practical planning and budgeting for energy projects
  • There is growing need to gender disaggregate to aid in the overall planning process so that no one is left behind the development process
  • Most of the STEM related projects that are said to have social dimension are still on- going with national budget allocations

While the structures and platforms are there for women in the STEM sectors, they are not sufficient.  Measurable impact of existing initiative to bridge the gap of women under- representation in the STEM sectors needs to be clarified. There should be deliberate focus on changing girls’ and women’s perceptions of STEM and giving them the skills and support they need to survive and achieve in STEM careers.More information needs to be communicated about the sector, and more women, youth and girls need to start taking advantage of trading in the sector rather than letting huge multinational companies come in and take advantage of existing local resources. There is no doubt that women have the potential to diversify innovation in the STEM sector Board rooms.

Author: Arinolah Elizabeth- Nite (Founder of WAUPIK- www.waupik.org ; Construction Economist; Resource Mobilizer and Part- time Lecturer in Economics, Mathematics, Statistics and Econometrics). Co- Author: Marylinne Nappah (Founder of SYI- www.sidaiyouthinitiative.co.ke ; Youth Gender Advocate and Project Manager


Author: Waupik

Waupik stands for : Women United Against Poverty in Kenya. It is a young women founded- women led national non- governmental organization based on the tenets of Kenya's Vision 2030. The founder is a Construction Economist graduant.

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