February 11 was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day that aims to celebrate their achievements, highlight barriers, challenges and opportunities needed to improve access for women to technology and science education and creating an enabling environment for female scientists and technologists.
This is because women globally remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or Stem. Back home, statistics from the Ministry of Education show that in 2015, about 55.1 per cent of girls in secondary schools were enrolled in science courses, up from 48.7 per cent in 2011.
Rwanda Education Board figures show out of the 49,715 boys and girls who sat advanced level national examinations in science subjects in the 2017 academic year, 27,023 qualified with principal passes, enabling them to join either public or private universities in science courses.
Data from the Rwanda Higher Education Council indicates that of the 27,023 girls, only 8,499 enrolled in science-related degrees at the university in the 2017-2018 academic year. Only 2,830 managed to graduate.
Young women aspiring to be scientists are wary of negative stereotypes about their intellectual abilities, lack of both career guidance and emotional support.
Academics say while Rwanda is making progress in encouraging young girls to enrol for Stem courses, a shift in mindset is needed. Research shows stereotypes and other psychological factors can dissuade girls from pursuing careers in maths and science.
Therefore, there is a need to combat stereotypes about gender and intellect because when children are born and nurtured in an environment that doesn’t reinforce some of these stereotypes, cultivate self-worth and belief right from childhood to help them grow up confident in their abilities.
It is important to encourage and teach young women that their abilities and skills can be developed over time. All it takes is patience and determination. It is clear that sometimes young women, like most of us, fear to fail, which limits their ambitions in life.
There is a need to teach young women that failure is part of life and that one can only grow their career or achieve great strides in life, if they embrace failure as part of the process.
Stereotypes can also be challenged by exposing girls to examples of women who have succeeded in Stem, highlight how they became scientists, making it easier for girls to envision themselves following a similar path to success.
A mentorship programme that allows young women to meet their role models in science is needed to help address their fears, concerns and reassure them that they can make it.
A deliberate strategy to ensure sustained full and equal participation in science for women and girls can play a vital role in closing the existing gender gap in science.