The Debate | Opinion

STEM Gender Bias Cripples Asia-Pacific Region

The future depends on girls and women having equal opportunities to learn – and to contribute – in the STEM disciplines.

By Lateisha Ugwuegbula for
STEM Gender Bias Cripples Asia-Pacific Region
Credit: Unsplash

Women hold only 18.5 percent of the research positions in South and West Asia and 23.4 percent in East Asia and the Pacific. These low numbers of female researchers reflect the reality of gender inequalities within education, and in particular the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). 

In today’s rapidly changing world, amid the climate crisis and threat of a flu pandemic as just two examples, the STEM fields are increasingly expected to provide innovative solutions to complex challenges. They are also crucial disciplines for personal and professional achievement. As many as 80 percent of jobs in Southeast Asia will require basic digital literacy and applied ICT skills by the year 2030. 

It is apparent that there is a critical need to eliminate barriers that girls and women face when pursuing STEM-related education and careers. These barriers not only affect their participation in STEM fields, but increasingly income levels, job security, ability to contribute to decisions that affect their futures, and ultimately their human rights. Enabling girls and women to stand alongside boys and men in STEM fields opens pathways for greater contributions in solving global challenges, not least of which is gender equality as a fundamental right.

Over the course of 2020, UNESCO will be publishing research gathered during the past year to provide deeper insights into why girls and women are being excluded from STEM in the Asia-Pacific and worldwide. Continuing the work of previous UNESCO publications, “Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in STEM” and “A Complex Formula: Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Asia,” UNESCO Bangkok has undertaken a regional project to update and expand the knowledge base on girls’ and women’s participation in STEM education across the region. The project features new research and initiatives in the nine countries of India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Many girls show an interest in STEM at a young age, but that interest is frequently stifled by pedagogical, psychological, and sociocultural barriers, as well as a lack of support to sustain their engagement. One program in the Philippines, STEMpower Our Girls, provides a model that could be replicated to sustain young girls’ interest in STEM. A February 2020 study shows that girls in the Philippines begin to lose interest in STEM subjects as early as the fourth grade, or at the age of 10. That decline is chiefly because girls see STEM-related careers as male-dominated, are convinced that girls are naturally less intelligent in STEM subjects, and have few role models of female representation in STEM. 

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This innovative project seeks to empower girls by targeting female learners, parents, and teachers to educate them on the importance of STEM and to allow girls to explore their passion for related disciplines. An important conclusion was that involvement from across the community, including from families, peers, and schools, is needed to sustain girls’ interest and excitement.

While innovative and creative projects may reduce barriers for girls interested in STEM subjects, once women do enter related fields and career paths, they continue to face gender-related biases and discrimination as professionals. As one crucial example, sociocultural norms often hold women and girls responsible for assuming more traditional household duties, effectively pressuring them into gender-stereotyped roles and excluding them from pursuing STEM careers. 

Researchers in India have explored sociocultural obstacles and gender expectations that female researchers face as they advance in their higher academic STEM careers. A February 2020 research paper found that relatively few women continue to higher education, and the female academics who do remain in the field are often disproportionately burdened with family duties, a lack of resources on campus, and gender stereotyping by their male peers. 

That trend is evident in many countries across the Asia-Pacific, and globally, as women face a range of difficulties in their careers that their male peers do not. Of course, the challenges that girls and women face in the STEM fields reflect broader gender inequalities common all over the world, which reinforce the barriers to achieving academic and professional success. 

To date, there has not been enough research done on the challenges and opportunities for girls and women in STEM education and careers. This shortfall, which UNESCO seeks to address, is a matter of fundamental fairness and the universal human right to education. In addition, however, society as a whole suffers when girls’ and women’s potential contributions in STEM fields are stifled by discrimination. 

Sharing knowledge at the regional and international level can provide examples of best practices to discourage discrimination and empower girls and women in STEM fields, as well as identify areas for further exploration. Further research needs to build a platform across the region that will lead to policy discussions, influence curricula, and develop collaborative opportunities. Peace and prosperity for people and the planet depends on girls and women having equal opportunities to learn – and to contribute – in the STEM disciplines.

Lateisha Ugwuegbula is a former intern with the Inclusive Quality Education section at UNESCO Bangkok and a recent graduate of the Master of Development Practice program at the University of Waterloo.