Empowering women in underserved communities

By Ashley Orzel (ashleyorzel.com)

According to UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) data, less than 30% of the world’s STEM researchers are women. “Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is the unfinished business of our time, and the greatest rights challenge in our world,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement on International Women’s Day in 2018.

The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report predicts that it will take 257 years to eliminate the prevailing gender gap in the workforce, globally.  While women remain underrepresented in STEM on a global scale, there is an added challenge in communities where patriarchy is strongly inscribed in the laws and social norms. 

“Women are primarily seen as homemakers, and even when they join the workforce, they are seen as being more suitable to ‘soft’ roles like school teachers,” said Hadeel Sahal Al Balushi, TV Anchor and CEO of Culture Online in Balochistan, Pakistan, who was also a guest speaker at SCWIST’s 2020 Gender Equality Week Forum. She adds that this has less to do with interests or capabilities, and more to do with encouragement and cultural stereotypes. 

So how can we help women internationally who want to pursue a career in STEM? 

Changing the Mindset of the People

“For things to change, women must stand up for their rights. We cannot just remain passive and keep hoping that one day the society will change its stance.”

Hadeel Sahal Al Balushi, TV Anchor and CEO of Culture Online in Balochistan, Pakistan

Bound to social pressure, many women face the dilemma of choosing between a traditional role confined to the home or pursuing an education and career. 

According to Allan Johnson, the author of The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy, patriarchy is generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women, but a long-standing system that we are unconsciously born into and participate in. 

Patriarchy has a way of convincing us that this is the way life is and there is no alternative. Changing the mindset means challenging an existing social structure and removing its barriers. 

Johnson’s solution starts with acknowledging the ongoing existence of patriarchy and how we participate in it. “The key is always to connect our choices to the systems we participate in,” he writes. The more you pay attention to it, the more opportunities you will find to change it. 

Access to Education

A key to developing the knowledge and confidence to challenge an existing social structure is through access to education.

Teachers, schools and infrastructure are beyond the reach of many communities due to economic disparity. Investing in public services can increase women’s ability to negotiate more equality in their relationships and improve their access to high-quality secondary education (source).

The 1991 study Educating Women: The Political Economy of Patriarchal States found that “the tendency for inequality in women’s education is not the result of deliberate policies of exclusion, but unchallenged social norms regarding social roles of men and women.”

Based on a National Literacy Mission in India, the study identified the following benefits from women’s literacy: increased participation of children in primary education, reduced infant mortality, greater success in child care and immunizations, declined fertility rates, greater self-confidence and self-image among women, and greater awareness by women of their social and legal rights.

In the developing world, the first focus must be on student retention. Better access to education gives women a greater social and political voice, while also boosting productivity and economic growth (source).

The Value of Mentorship and Connection

A valuable tool for empowering the next generation of women in STEM is connecting them with leaders in the industry. 

SCWIST’s Immigrating Women in STEM (IWIS) program has a mission to develop a supportive community where women can share their experiences, seek advice and broaden their networks. Free mentorship for girls is also available through SCWIST’s Make Possible platform.

Research conducted by Microsoft revealed that role models and mentors have a profound impact on girls and young women in STEM. Mentorships, proper career advice and guidance is vital for powering their aspirations. If we show young women what others have achieved and the impact that they have made on the world, we can inspire them to realize their potential in STEM.

Female Leadership: Giving Women a Voice

Currently, only 25% of the 35,127 global seats in parliament are occupied by women and 21% of the 3,343 ministers are women; in some countries, women are not represented at all (source).

We need to promote women’s voices to better facilitate women’s journey to gender equality and get women in government and leadership positions. 

In Canada, one study showed that women in public service have had a clear impact on “policy, programs and operations such as in fisheries, the automotive industry, national security, natural resources, the environment, science, human resources and international relations.” This impact arises not only from the inclusion of women’s perspectives, but also from leadership styles that are open, collaborative and less hierarchical.

This is the time we need to encourage women to rise up and push forward. Having women in leadership roles is breaking down patriarchal structures and showing what women can achieve. 

Conclusion

Solving gender disparity and closing the gender gap, particularly in unserved communities with long-standing patriarchy, is a daunting task. But there are steps we can take individually to progress as a global society. By acknowledging the inequality, challenging ourselves and the existing social structure, investing in better access to education, connecting girls with inspiring mentors, and encouraging more women to pursue leadership positions, we can empower more women to be bold and realize their full potential.

Ashley Orzel is a freelance content specialist with a focus on writing, editing, website strategy and multimedia production. Have questions for Ashley? Visit her website or contact her via Twitter @ashleyjaye.