By Barbara Read, Jane Umutoni and the Gendered Journeys team
International Women’s Day comes hot on the heels of the UN-sponsored International Day of Girls and Women in Science, held on 11th February. This day is held in recognition not only of continued gender imbalances in the field of Science and other STEM fields, but also of the crucial need for gender equality as a pillar of any plan to achieve the 2030 global sustainable development goals. It is in this context that the Gendered Journeys project has been established – a three year international, interdisciplinary project exploring the gendered experiences and views of undergraduate STEM students through higher education and into skilled employment, in India and Rwanda, with some comparative work also being conducted in the UK. The project consists of team members from the University of Glasgow, University of Rwanda and the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, and is due to run until 2023.
At present, girls and women are markedly underrepresented in STEM areas both as students and in the workforce in most countries across the globe. At Higher Education level, roughly 30% of students enrolled in STEM studies internationally are (identified as) women (UNESCO, 2017). In certain STEM areas the picture is even starker – for example the percentage of women in ICT internationally is given as 3%, and at 5% in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics. This of course masks a lot of variation across countries and regions – for example 16% of students in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics in Côte D’Ivoire are women, compared to 86% in Bahrain (UNESCO, 2017). These variations support arguments that patterns of gender representation in STEM cannot be understood as the result of fixed, unchanging biological differences between two neatly categorised sexes – rather we need to look further at the role of social and cultural influences.
Taking this view, a lot of valuable work has been done and continues to be done to try and encourage girls and women into STEM study and careers. There have also been big movements to address the issue of the numerical under-representation of women in STEM at HE level and into the skilled workforce. There are a few pitfalls, however, if we only aim to achieve a numerical gender ‘balance’. One issue is that we can fall into a trap whereby girls/women and boys/men are perceived as two simply defined, uncomplicated, and diametrically opposite categories. This can leave aside more complex issues such as the large variations between the ways in which people identify in relation to gender, and the ways human experience is always intersected with other aspects of identity or position– such as, for example, ethnicity, sexuality or socio-economic background (Carlone & Johnson, 2007; Gorard & Huat See, 2009; Gagnon & Reggiani, 2019).
Work in this area can also focus overly on the level of the individual at the expense of interrogating broader institutional and socio-cultural influences (Archer et al., 2017). Focusing primarily or solely on the encouragement of individual girls and women into STEM pathways – at the expense of addressing potential inequities in established educational and organisational cultures and practices – can risk implying that the main, or only thing we need to do is to ‘fix’ individuals’ lack of motivation or self-confidence.
Taking such a broader perspective, feminist research indicates the need to challenge and change institutional cultures and practices (see e.g. Leathwood and Read, 2009; Cebula et al., 2020), as well as challenging widespread social discourses that construct girls and women as seemingly innately less able in relation to STEM subjects in comparison to boys/men. Such perceptions infuse teacher and parental expectations, and influence students’ own self-perception as to their capabilities, enjoyment and interest in a line of study (Archer et al., 2012). At the University of Rwanda (UR), where Gendered Journeys team member Jane Umutoni is based, we have sought to address the impact of such perceptions not only by developing and supporting mentorship and role modelling initiatives, but also in work that attempts to engage education practitioners and wider communities in developing a gender aware, gender responsive and conducive environments. As the saying goes ‘charity begins at home, one cannot give what they do not have’. This has included a recent partnership between UR’s Centre for Gender Studies and UNICEF to develop gender-responsive pedagogy toolkits for secondary and primary school educators.
There has so far been less focus on the influence of ‘gendered’ academic cultures and practices at higher education level on the retention and success of women and non-binary students in STEM sectors – particularly in low and middle-income countries (see EGHE, 2018). Retention research in HE stresses the importance of conceptions of belonging at university and supportive social connections (Tinto, 2006; HEA, 2010). Students who are from more financially disadvantaged backgrounds, those who have had a break in education, and/or those with family/caring commitments (the majority of whom will be women) are even more likely to face challenges in achieving a sense of belonging, staying on and succeeding at university (Atuahene & Owusu-Ansah, 2013, University of Rwanda, 2017).
Research has demonstrated that intersectional inequalities persist across higher education, from entry into certain subjects and institutions, to attainment and progression. The move from higher education to skilled employment represents another stage where underrepresented groups tend to face additional barriers (Shaw and Stanton, 2012). As discussed in our recent blog post, it is at key transitionary points that women and other minorities in these STEM fields, particularly the so-called ‘hard’ sciences such as Engineering, Maths and Physics, often do not take the next step in their studies or career pathways. Furthermore, research by VisNet, a project exploring the gender gap in STEM academic careers, has shown that, once in work, underrepresented genders in STEM struggle to form the networks and connections that allow them progress in their fields, with women overrepresented in junior roles (van den Besselaar & Sandström, 2017).
Our Gendered Journeys project looks at the ways in which gender, intersecting with other aspects of identity, may play a role in the experiences of STEM students once they are already enrolled at university, and onwards into skilled employment, in India and Rwanda. As well as facilitating support networks, we aim to utilise the study findings to construct ‘toolkits’ that can be used as a basis for discussion and reflection in relation to gendered assumptions and barriers, amongst academic staff and students, as well as employers and employees in STEM fields. In doing so, we hope to contribute to work in this field that looks at ways in which we can challenge established gendered cultures and normative practices, a crucial undertaking if we are to achieve progress towards meeting UN 2030 gender equity goals.
Atuahene, F. and Owusu-Ansah, A. (2013) A Descriptive Assessment of Higher Education Access, Participation,Equity and Disparity in Ghana, SAGE Open, 3, 3.
Carlone, Heidi B. and Angela Johnson (2007) Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Science identity as an analytic lens, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44, 8, 1187-1218.
Cebula, Carla,Katie Nicoll Baines, Catherine Lido, Job H.J. Thijssen, Karen Halliday, Nicki Hedge, Helen Mulvana, and Caroline Gauchotte-Lindsay(2020) Inclusion DOES Matter: COVID-19 as an opportunity (not a near miss) for making decisive changes in UK STEMM academia, Preprint paper: 10.31235/osf.io/rkj5h .
Examining Gender in Higher Education (EGHE, 2018) Gendered Patterns of HE Participation and Success: Initial Findings of the EGHE Network for Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, The Gambia and the UK. Policy Briefing. Accessed: www.eghe.org.
Network for Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda,
Gagnon, J and Reggiani, M. (2019). “The STEM Equals project asks: What does it mean to be seen?” The GIST. Available online: https://the-gist.org/2019/09/the-stem-equals-project-asks-what-does-it-mean-to-be-seen/
Gorard, Stephen & Beng Huat See (2009) The impact of socio‐economic status on participation and attainment in science, Studies in Science Education, 45:1, 93-129
Leathwood, C. and Read, B. (2009) Gender and the Changing Face of Higher Education: A Feminised Future? London: SRHE & Open University Press
Shaw, A. and Stanton, D. (2012) Leaks in the pipeline: separating demographic inertia from ongoing gender differences in academia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279 (1743): 3736–3741. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0822.
Tinto, Vincent (2006) Research and Practice of Student Retention: What Next? Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, 8, 1, 1-19.
UNESCO (2017). Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in science, technology,
engineering and mathematics (STEM). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. France.
University of Rwanda (UR, 2017) Understanding the Causes of Low Female Enrolment at the University of Rwanda. UR Report 2017 (Kigali, Rwanda).
Van den Besselaar, P. and Sandström, U. (2017) Vicious circles of gender bias, lower positions, and lower performance: Gender differences in scholarly productivity and impact. PLoS ONE 12(8): e0183301. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0183301.