Women are hugely under-represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). UNESCO’s Women in Science report found that they account for only 29 percent of researchers worldwide. In sub-Saharan Africa, this figure stands just slightly higher, at 30 percent.
In an effort to change this situation, the African Gifted Foundation launched the first girls-only school in Africa offering advanced courses in science and math. The African Science Academy (ASA), a boarding school located on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, opened its doors in August last year.
Each year, the school selects academically gifted girls with a passion for math and science from all over Africa, though they must be fluent in English. It prepares them to sit their Cambridge International A-Level exams within a single academic year. The hope is that after this period, the girls will go on to study STEM subjects at university.
Women & Girls sat down with Helen Denyer, administration manager for the London-based African Gifted Foundation, to find out more about the academy and its quest to create gender balance in the STEM fields.
Women & Girls: What is the main objective of the African Science Academy?
Helen Denyer: Even though girls show such huge potential, internationally there is a strong gender imbalance in the STEM fields. This is because girls and women continue to face significant barriers in accessing STEM education, such as gender discrimination and lack of encouragement. Our aim at the ASA is to close this gap.
We prepare our students to compete in very male-dominated environments. By not only focusing on their academics but their all-around education, including their confidence and public-speaking abilities, we are preparing them to stand up and have their voices heard, no matter where and with whom they end up working.
Women & Girls: Why is there this gender imbalance when it comes to careers in STEM?
Denyer: Traditionally, STEM subjects are seen as male fields. It is often believed that girls should stick to the arts and business subjects, with boys going into the STEM fields. When I visited high schools in Ghana in order to promote ASA, I found a co-ed school where there was not a single girl pursuing the science options at the high school level. And the situation gets worse the higher one goes up the education ladder: At the undergraduate level, there are even fewer female students and at the PhD level there are hardly any left. This has to do with their upbringing, both by their families and by their teachers.
A student at the African Science Academy takes notes. (Photo Courtesy of the African Gifted Foundation)
Women & Girls: Looking specifically at the African context, what other barriers do girls with an interest in STEM face?
Denyer: The first barrier is that girls are often seen as less important than boys. Hence families sometimes invest more into the education of the boy child than the girl child, which can mean that girls have to stay at home and help their families. This goes for all girls, whether they are interested in STEM or other subjects. In Ghana, 21 percent of girls are married before they are 18, with rates as high as 39 percent in the northern part of the country, according to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2016 report.
When we look more specifically at girls who wish to follow a career path in STEM, we see that there are additional challenges faced, such as girls being discouraged in these fields, girls not taken seriously when they do pursue the STEM option, them not being treated fairly by their male peers and teachers and their voices being ignored. Of course, there are also men encouraging more girls to go into the STEM fields – such as our founder, Tom Ilube – but we need more of them!
Women & Girls: What can be done to help African girls overcome such barriers?
Denyer: Girls interested in science would benefit from being introduced to female role models in the STEM fields. Role models can share their journey, explain how they overcame barriers and inspire younger girls to enter the same fields. Beyond just role models, girls interested in STEM would benefit from mentors who follow them on their journey and offer advice when needed.
Women & Girls: Why is it so important to encourage girls in STEM?
Denyer: Any field of study needs to represent the population. It just does not make sense to have only 50 percent of the world population – males – solving problems for everyone. We need equal representation by everybody in order to solve the problems faced by whole populations. There are some challenges faced by women that men might not have enough exposure to, might not see as a problem or might not know how to solve. The best people to solve a problem are those who face the problem themselves.