Exploring Myths about Youth and STEM in West Africa

African girls sitting in a classroom.
  1. Understand if gender stereotypes about STEM are still pervasive among today’s more tech-savvy youth;
  2. Determine what influences the students’ career aspirations; and
  3. Identify ways to encourage increased engagement of students, especially girls, in STEM fields.

Exploring the Myths

MYTH #1: Boys Prefer STEM Subjects (Science, Technology, and Math) and Girls Favor non-STEM Subjects (Language, Art, History, etc.)

Responses to ‘What is Your Favorite Subject in School?’
Figure 1: Responses to ‘What is Your Favorite Subject in School?’

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.

Responses to ‘Are You Good at Math?’ and responses to ‘Are You Good at Science?’
FIGURE 2: Responses to ‘Are You Good at Math?’ | FIGURE 3: Responses to ‘Are You Good at Science?’
Responses to ‘Being Good at Math and/or Science’
FIGURE 4: Responses to ‘Being Good at Math and/or Science’

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.

Responses to ‘How Would You Describe Learning Math and/or Science?’ and ‘If You Checked FUN and/or INTERESTING and/or EASY, What Makes it so?’
FIGURE 5: Responses to ‘How Would You Describe Learning Math and/or Science?’ | FIGURE 6:If You Checked FUN and/or INTERESTING and/or EASY, What Makes it so?’

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.

Responses to ‘What is Your Dream Career/Job When You Grow Up’?
FIGURE 7: Responses to ‘What is Your Dream Career/Job When You Grow Up’?
Responses to ‘Are You Planning to Pursue a Science or Math Related Career in The Future?’
FIGURE 8: Responses to ‘Are You Planning to Pursue a Science or Math Related Career in The Future?’
Responses to ‘If You Answered NO, Why Not?’
FIGURE 9: Responses to ‘If You Answered NO, Why Not?’
Responses to ‘If You Answered YES, What Influenced This Decision?’
FIGURE 10: Responses to ‘If You Answered YES, What Influenced This Decision?’

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.

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