Why women avoid careers in science and technology

Women are grossly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers despite solid gains in the share of females graduating from university in the fields, reveals a NationNewsplex review of jobs and education data.

Only one in three doctors is a woman. Slightly more than a third (35 percent) of the 6,664 doctors and dentists registered with the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board (KMPDB) by 2018 are women.

Unesco figures indicate that the representation of women researchers is also low in other science fields in Kenya, including natural sciences (14 percent), and engineering and technology (11 percent). Even though women provide 80 percent of farm labour in Kenya, they make up less than a third of agricultural scientists.

As the world marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the exclusion of women from STEM is not unique to Kenya but common around the world. Women account for just 28 percent of global researchers but the figure masks wide variations between countries and regions, according to Unesco data (2014 – 2016).

In East Africa, barriers facing female researchers include difficulty in travelling to conferences or in participating in field work, on the assumption that they are the primary caregivers at home.

Each step up the ladder of scientific research, work and decision-making sees a drop in female participation. For instance, only one in four of the about 2,500 active specialist doctors (e.g. cardiologists, oncologists and gynaecologists) in Kenya is a woman.

Just three of 18 major science and policy-based research organisations in Kenya are headed by women − the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis and Kenya Forestry Research Institute (the chief executive officer is serving in an acting capacity).

One in six university and university college heads is a woman. A deeper dive into the degree courses offered by the universities shows that only four of the women were at the helm of the 12 universities that offer a wide range of STEM courses. They were Egerton University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Technical University of Mombasa and Kirinyaga University (acting VC).

A look at what is coming down the pipe suggests that a lot more effort is needed to smash gender bias and enable girls and women to access and excel in science. Figures from the Commission for University Education indicate that a third (33 percent) of university students enrolled in STEM courses are women. The presence of women varies according to the field of study. In 2015, at the undergraduate level, the share of female students’ enrolment was particularly low in the clusters of manufacturing (16 percent), engineering (17 percent) and computing (22 percent). But there was near gender parity in the health and welfare cluster (49 percent).
When it comes to graduation rates, gender parity was nearly achieved among students who graduated in health and welfare with undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees. Two in five graduates in life and physical sciences, and forestry and agriculture were women.

Further down in the academic ladder boys continue to outshine girls in science and math. In the 2018 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination girls beat boys in metal work only and lagged behind in the other science and technology-related courses, including biology, chemistry, computer studies, electricity, general science, mathematics, physics, power mechanics, agriculture, and aviation.