Exploring Myths about Youth and STEM in West Africa
Today’s young people are more technologically adept than ever before. Do they still believe the old gender tropes about STEM?
“Girls are just naturally bad at math and science.” This is one of many long-running and harmful stereotypes about girls’ abilities to study and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Yet, today’s youth are perhaps the most technologically savvy generation ever.
Generation Z (GenZ) is the first to come of age without knowledge of a pre-digital world, and many tech-savvy GenZ-ers are now entering the workforce. Noting GenZ’s technical fluency, are the myths about girls engaging in STEM still pervasive today?
In May 2022, Power Africa investigated this question by administering a survey of students in five English, French, and bilingual schools in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal. Power Africa designed the survey to:
- Understand if gender stereotypes about STEM are still pervasive among today’s more tech-savvy youth;
- Determine what influences the students’ career aspirations; and
- Identify ways to encourage increased engagement of students, especially girls, in STEM fields.
A total of 178 girls and boys, aged 11–18, completed the survey. The findings shed light on many current narratives about STEM engagement for girls.
Exploring the Myths
MYTH #1: Boys Prefer STEM Subjects (Science, Technology, and Math) and Girls Favor non-STEM Subjects (Language, Art, History, etc.)
We asked students to choose their favorite subject in school, and 29 percent of the girls selected science and technology-related subjects compared to 23 percent of boys. However, a larger percentage of boys surveyed favored math (35 percent) compared to 23 percent of the girls. The most favored subjects amongst the girls surveyed were science and technology, foreign languages, and math, while the boys favored math, science and technology, and physical education. Foreign languages were popular among girls (28 percent), while none of the boys surveyed selected this as their favorite subject.
VERDICT: FALSE. There is a gender divide between boys favoring STEM subjects like math, but not science. Girls also favored non-STEM subjects like Foreign Languages among the students surveyed.
MYTH #2: Boys are Better Than Girls in STEM Subjects
While the Power Africa team did not access the respondents’ grades, the survey asked if they believed they were good at math or good at science. Sixty-six percent of girls and 70 percent of boys surveyed said they were good at math, which is interesting because the findings in Figure 1 show that 12 percent more of the boys surveyed selected math as their favorite subject than the girls who responded. This could mean that girls still view themselves as “good” at math even though it is not their favorite subject. Next, 79 percent of girls and 63 percent of boys considered themselves good at science, which supports the idea that girls thought they were good at science, and it was their favorite subject.
The Power Africa team also asked whether the students thought being good at science and math was something you’re born with, something you can learn and develop, or both in Figure 4. Of the girls who responded, most thought being good at math and science was something you can learn versus something you were born with. Thirty percent of girls surveyed thought it was a combination of something you are born with and something you can develop/learn. Interestingly, a larger percentage of the boys who responded to the survey believed that being good at math and/or science was only something you are born with.
VERDICT: FALSE. Despite the larger portion of boys who thought being good at science and math has more to do with nature than nurture, most of the responses broke the myth that being good at science and math is natural.
MYTH #3: Students Find STEM Subjects Hard or Boring
When asked how they would describe learning math and/or science, the students surveyed found science and math interesting rather than being difficult or boring. A little under half of girls and boys surveyed found math and science interesting. Most students responded positively, selecting that math and science were interesting, fun, and easy, whereas a smaller portion of students found them boring and difficult.
VERDICT: FALSE. Across genders, the students surveyed had a similar perception of how they would describe learning math and science.
When learning about STEM, the students surveyed believed the course material was fun, interesting, and/or easy because their teachers explained the concepts well or connected them to everyday life. While a larger percentage of boys (40 percent) reported that they liked when teachers explained the concepts well, a larger share of girls (19 percent) liked when the teachers connected the ideas to everyday life. Students also enjoyed incorporating experiments, videos, and documentaries to supplement their learning in math and science.
MYTH #4: Girls Are Not Interested in STEM Careers
Despite being a male-dominated field, girls showed a keen interest in becoming engineers and scientists. They also favored other professions like becoming doctors, architects, and lawyers. Almost 20 percent more of the girls surveyed were interested in becoming doctors than the boys surveyed, which looks hopeful when compared with the fact that currently only 28 percent of African physicians are women, according to a 2019 World Health Organization report. It is also worth noting that a greater percentage of the boys surveyed want to be engineers and scientists: 48 percent of boys surveyed dreamed of being engineers or scientists compared to 29 percent of girls surveyed.
Power Africa asked the students if they planned to pursue a career related to science or math in the future. While the interest appears to be equal (66 percent of girls and 67 percent of boys), the responses hide a gender gap in the motivations for why they either planned or did not plan to pursue a STEM career. Though none of the boys reported that their parents discouraged them from pursuing a science/math-related degree, a small percentage of girls said their parents discouraged them from pursuing a career in math and science. Of students who plan to pursue a career in STEM, 41 percent of girls plan to pursue STEM out of love for the subject matter. Of the boys surveyed, a larger percentage (32 percent) reported that their parents influenced them to pursue a math and science career, whereas 22 percent of girls said they had support from home.
VERDICT: FALSE. The same proportion of boys and girls surveyed are planning to pursue a STEM-related career. However, Figure 7 shows that STEM career interests differ by gender. A greater proportion of the girls surveyed leaned more toward medicine and biological sciences, whereas a greater percentage of the boys surveyed were attracted to engineering sciences.
Why the Myths Still Matter
While many current myths about STEM do not hold weight among the younger generation, these misperceptions still perpetuate gender gaps in the STEM workforce. Girls and women across the globe remain underrepresented in STEM educational settings and careers. In the survey, a similar percentage of girls and boys are interested in pursuing STEM-related fields in the future, yet the STEM workforce shows a gender gap. A Microsoft study from 2018 shows that most girls become interested in STEM in school at around age 11, but this interest starts to decline by age 15. This may point to the attrition rate between the leap from school and joining the STEM workforce and myths that may have already started to affect girls and women during their primary and secondary education.
Globally, many USAID initiatives are already aimed at creating a steady pipeline of girls to enter the STEM workforce by engaging them early in primary and middle school. These need to be sustained and replicated. Parents and family should also continue to play a pivotal role in encouraging girls to pursue science, math, and technology. As observed in Figure 6, how teachers connect math and science to everyday topics and incorporating experiments, videos, and documentaries are critical in making science and math interesting, fun, and easy for students.
While GenZ is redefining the world through technology, it is crucial to create an environment that nurtures girls’ and boys’ interests, encourages them to pursue their interests, and helps them thrive, all while promoting diversity and equity critical to a sustainable and inclusive future.