There is no lack of talent in Pakistan. Then why is there an immense gender gap in professional S.T.E.M. fields?
This article was originally published in The News International, and has been only slightly modified here.
If your answer was, “Gender gap doesn’t exist! Don’t you see how many women are present in medical colleges in Pakistan?,” then you’re half correct – and only painfully so. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated on February 11th. Unfortunately, for Pakistan the gender parity ranking in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (also referred to as S.T.E.M.) fields is at rock bottom. While it seems like there isn’t much to celebrate in that fact, one can look at it as a gigantic window of colossal opportunity. Weeding out the causes of this dearth of females in S.T.E.M. can give an insight into what can be changed to tip the scales.
Yes, it starts from childhood. Very early on, almost before birth, the girl child is ostensibly pushed towards dolls and plastic cooking sets, while the boy is gifted with toy cars, building blocks, board games, and fascinating robots that stimulate his spatial and analytical faculties way before the parents set their children out to gain formal education. As it happens, children are incredibly attached to their toys, and have been observed to grasp creativity as well as social skills from the games they play. A research by the Association of Psychological Science [i] in January 2015 found that children who frequently play with puzzles, construction, and board games tend to have better cognitive abilities. For the girl child, on the other hand, no conscious effort is made to cultivate interest towards toys that focus on math, science, and construction activities. Recurrently, this disinterest is conveniently attributed to biology and shrugged off. According to an American Society for Engineering Education investigation of Amazon.com datasets, physics and engineering toys were each purchased at a rate of only about 8.5% for girls [ii]. Maybe in Pakistan there is some variation to the trend of buying toys based on a child’s gender. As to the question of how much, the answer is currently open to disdainful speculation.
What’s interesting to note here though, is that in Pakistan, 8th grade girls outperformed boys in all subjects by quite a large margin [iii]! If indeed it was the case that a girl’s mind is naturally and inherently not built for technological conquests, the girls would not have scored more in the educational assessments. The question remains then, what changes after 8th grade? Why do girls lose interest in fields relating to engineering, technology, math, physics etc.?
In Pakistan, more girls can comfortably choose to study in a medical university simply because these institutes already have an significant number of girls studying there already. Also, the abundant representation of women as doctors and pediatricians in TV serials and commercials have – to some limit – successfully normalized the presence of a female medical practitioner. But there is severe lack of relatable role models for Pakistani girls within science and tech, and particularly within engineering. It’s not that exceptional Pakistani women in S.T.E.M. don’t exist, it’s just that we have failed to amplify their presence and have neglected their tremendous achievements. Pakistani women are pilots, engineers, and pioneers! But how much of their trailblazing triumphs is common knowledge? Recently, at the Lahore Science Mela the Women Engineers Pakistan booth received pronounced attention from school-going girls and their parents. What personally struck me was when one lady mentioned how just having seen female representation at the science fair gave her courage, and boosted her morale about her own intellectual and academic abilities. Inspired by the upward spike in her confidence, Women Engineers Pakistan is now running a month-long campaign to highlight Pakistani women role models, in hopes to encourage future generations of engineers, technologists, and scientists.
Personally, I have received hundreds of emails from young girls asking which engineering field is the most “suitable for girls”. Every time I get this question, I die a little bit inside. Upon further inquisition, I often find that the family elders are not sure if the particular field will be safe for their girl child to navigate. Truth be told, I do not blame them. I would be just as concerned knowing what I know about workplace harassment within the tech sectors. The argument remains though, that while most S.T.E.M. occupations are dependent only on mental aptitudes, I have met some awe-inspiring female engineers who work on site. The only difference was that their organizations actually made direct efforts to keenly foster welcoming climates with dignity. Organizations that take an active stand for making their workplaces safer, and more accommodating have been seen to retain more women in S.T.E.M. fields.
Other than this, there exist One Million Micro-aggressions! While workplace and sexual harassment laws [iv] are already in place in Pakistan, there is a lot of ground between when a discomfiting event occurs and when the law comes in action. These distressing events can range from measly lewd stares to sneering remarks. But micro-aggressions come in all sizes. Stereotyping, making snap judgements of capabilities based on gender, assuming good fit / bad fit for promotion based on the boss’s assumption of whether or not the woman employee would be culturally at ease. For example, I was recently told by a male professor that female faculty are not so commonly hired in engineering because they cannot stay back late, do not want to take outdoor sessions, and do not want physical work. Such ease of generalization by expert opinion of a narrative that is not one’s own only goes to show the abundant existence of implicit bias, or more correctly put, unexamined bias. (As an additional note; no employee – male or female – should be staying back late. If an employee is routinely working after hours, it only indicates that they’re not organized enough to do the work within the time that was initially allotted to them!)
Equal pay based on gender is not mandated by the Government of Pakistan, or any law within the country [v]. Also, while Article 27 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that, “No citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of any such appointment on the ground only of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth”, this law is only applicable to the public sector. No such provisions exist for private sector. This law also is also providing leeway to gender-based occupational segregation, as it goes on to say, “Provided further that, in the interest of the said service, specified posts or services may be reserved for members of either sex if such posts or services entail the performance of duties and functions which cannot be adequately performed by members of the other sex,” leaving one wondering that who gets to decide what can be adequately performed by whom.
From a birds-eye view, Pakistan is moving forward to gender parity (albeit on an extremely slow rate). There are many efforts going on to highlight the gender gap, and organizations are taking fresh strides to recruit and retain more skilled women. One thing that is repeatedly coming to front is the concept of diversity. Diversity includes the many different social identities that give meaning to us, and the social groups that we belong to. Often social identity can make us appear different from others. Diversity is the “who and what”. It’s the headcount of who is at the table. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, involving one woman speaker at the panel of a tech conference, or having six female employees in a company of 10,000 workers is considered enough to be called a diverse atmosphere. What needs to be focused upon much more now is the concept of inclusion. Inclusion encircles the “how”. How is a S.T.E.M. organization embracing whatever diversity it has? Are the female employees provided with female toilets? Is there a day-care system available for working mothers? Are female bosses attentively listened to just as much as the male ones? Are female employees of the same rank being paid equal to their male counterparts? It’s often said, “without inclusion, there’s a diversity backlash.” In my experience of working directly with women in S.T.E.M., most women opt out of these male-dominated fields because of prevalent marginalizing cultures.
Women in Pakistan make more than 48% of the population. Of these, only 44.3% are literate. As per the Pakistan Council for Science & Technology, less than 10% of engineers and technologists are women.[vi] For other S.T.E.M. fields, women make up around 18% of the manpower. It’s unfortunate that exact data does not exist for this disparity, as many schools and S.T.E.M. institutes are hesitant to share the true figures. But rhetoric and facts alone can’t change the status quo. A lot more needs to be done to encourage more girls in science and math-relevant fields. This gap can needs to be seen as an opportunity and a focus area for the entire country to move forward. The time to act is now.
For your reference:
[iii] National Education Assessment Test Report 2016
[iv] Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act of 2010
The author is a Structural and Earthquake Engineer by day, PhD researcher for structural fire-hazard resilience, and is the Founder & CEO of Women Engineers Pakistan, where she works on equipping more women towards STEM fields.
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Women Engineers Pakistan is looking for talented writers to contribute to our blog. We work to draw attention towards difficult topics; such as: Advocacy for women in STEM fields, Policies and Statutes to facilitate STEM talent within the country, Measures taken against workplace/sexual harassment, Resources available to encourage and retain women in STEM fields, etc. We also conduct interviews with women in tech. fields, run STEM Summer camps, etc., and would need bloggers to cover such events. Please do familiarize yourself with our blog at http://www.womenengineers.pk/blog
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STEM has numerous graduates in Pakistan and is also one of the leading career choices that individuals make. However, since the pool of talent is ever-increasing, the government has been unable to create equal amount of opportunities to cater this resource which ultimately results in ‘brain-drain’ of talent. Engineers, scientists, mathematicians, technologists, etc. move out of Pakistan to avail lucrative opportunities abroad which gives them a fair return for their amount of hard work. This probably is the most urgent problem which requires effective policy design for STEM graduates. The current government of the country has initiated collaborative projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which will make good use of our home-grown talent and there are various other opportunities like paid-internship programmes, government support for the private sector to create jobs and many more. The problem however, is these opportunities are not enough and don’t either give a fair return for the efforts of the graduates.
Another major problem is advocacy for such policies. Policy formulation and implementation, both require ardent endorsers who can gather enough support for the policy to be turned into a Bill and ultimately into an Act of law. Pakistan is a country which spends less than 4 percent of its GDP on education which includes education related to science and technology, therefore, the root of the problem is evident right from this point. This shows that the policy makers don’t have this issue on their cards and advocacy groups are unable to create a buzz about the need for policy.
STEM graduates are the need of the time. With a fast-pacing world where technological advancement gives an edge to economies and scientific research and development is an indicator of progress, Pakistan must develop and retain its resources. Although the private sector has immense opportunities for STEM graduates and there are numerous tech start-ups which are gaining attention but the government’s support is mandatory. Favourable tax policies, capital-financing schemes, employment opportunities in public corporations or government projects without quotas, etc. can bring considerable change. Apart from employment opportunities, STEM graduates need to be secured at the university-level as well. Government universities have certain provincial or gender-specific quotas defined along with competitive entrance examinations which act as a barrier for many potential “STEM-ers” to roll in. Various policies for STEM graduates, in terms of their education, employment and legislation need to be formulated, implemented and then evaluated so that it can be checked whether the policy action taken, achieved the objectives laid down in the policy statement
Be the wave you want to see
STEM is a male-dominated area of study and this fact does inspire a lot of girls who want to make a difference. Girls, who look up to defying the odds or breaking stereotypes, will absolutely take up a career in STEM. They do this to challenge themselves with tasks which are presumed to be ‘male-oriented’ and give exceptional performances which are noteworthy.
It is your passion along with creativity and curiosity to do something new which encourages you take up a career in STEM. This curiosity to discover things, taking up challenges and becoming innovative takes its roots from a very young age. People who are part of the girls’ immediate circle that include her family, friends and teachers are the ones who play a major role in shaping her future interests ever since she’s exposed to learning and education. There are various ways in which you can channelize her interest towards engineering, science, mathematics and technology.
Children in their early ages are more attracted towards visuals than reading text or audio. Instigating their interest in STEM at this age through videos might be a fruitful idea because it can help retain their attention for a longer period of time. Videos regarding successful women engineers, their stories, how they started and how they ended up being who they are can be inspirational. Moreover, a few videos from engineering schools alumni can be really helpful.
Site seeing and discussions
Taking your daughters for recreation to places like zoo, science museums, and their teachers can take them to factories, taking them for a city tour and showing them great engineering and architectural wonders can really help. Educating children about a few technicalities of things they see on a daily basis, for example, a bridge, roads, waste disposal facilities, recycling machines, etc. can make a lot of difference too.
Taking to science exhibitions and fairs
Various schools put in an effort to arrange science fairs and exhibitions which is an ardent initiative in itself. If taken seriously, these science fairs can help girls reap immense benefit from it. Girls at early age are enthusiastic about teamwork, creativity and craft, therefore, when these skills are directed towards a science project, they can definitely help in creating a long-term love for the field. These science fairs are not only arranged at the school-level, instead they can be community-based as well. DiscoverE, is one such US- based initiative which helps arrange activities and science fairs for children in order to develop their interest in engineering. They arrange a ‘Girls Day’ where young girls participate in teams to come up with something innovative. Such ideas can be motivating and propagate interest in STEM.
Selection of toys
Choice of toys can impact a child’s behavior, social skills and interest from an early age. Therefore, if parents wish to instigate interest for science in children, they need to change their choice of toys for them as well. There are various options in the market regarding this. Learning maths through legos, physics through experiments etc. can be fun and knowledgeable at the same time.
Making the subject creative
Most of the time children find subjects like mathematics and science boring and complex because of which it is difficult for mentors and parents to direct the girls’ interest towards it. In order to counter this challenge and create interest, they need to make the subjects interesting for them. This interest can be developed by teaching it in a creative way. For example, the class teacher can arrange experiments and design activities which help fun and science go hand-in-hand. Girls will be attracted towards such method of study and will definitely give, opting science, a thought.
Design activities which show immediate results
Building a clay volcano which shows the lava coming out of it, building a parallel circuit which helps light up the bulb, creating any mechanical machine like a pin wheel, etc. gets kids excited and curious about science. They question more about the engineering or science behind a certain result which shows that they are interested in it. Planning more similar activities will undoubtedly provoke them to study science.
Helping others through engineering
Science and engineering has helped save a lot of lives. Civil engineers, pharmaceuticals, doctors, materials engineers, chemical engineers and many more are playing their bit in making the society a better place to live. As you introspect the places around you, you will realize how dependent we are on science. Ranging from the development of a new drug to save human life to conserving the environment, people in STEM are helping others. If this thought is inculcated into girls, they will surely look up to being part of this league.
Not just for Boys
Be the change you want to see