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Empowering girls in STEM in Rwanda: reflections from International Day of Women in Mathematics 2021

On 12th May, our Building Learning Foundations team in Rwanda hosted an insightful discussion, ‘Empower girls in mathematics: start early’, seeking to inspire those working in the education sector to support more girls and women to take on STEM subjects. Here, we reflect on key learnings from the panel discussion on the barriers preventing girls from studying and excelling in STEM subjects, as well as what can be done to encourage more girls to develop an interest in mathematics from the critical primary years onwards.

The panel discussion, facilitated by Faith Mbabazi, saw contributions from Dr. Marie-Christine Gasingirwa, Applied Sciences Analyst at Rwanda’s Higher Education Council, Marie Chantal Bizimana, Sector Learning Facilitator for Building Learning Foundations (BLF) and Jean Marie Vianney Munyaneza, Safeguarding Specialist for BLF, who each spoke to the various barriers and challenges to girls engaging with STEM subjects in general, and mathematics in particular – as well as the necessary efforts that are underway to address these issues.

Despite gender parity at primary level in Rwanda, girls are consistently underrepresented in STEM subjects at upper secondary and tertiary levels. Any type of underrepresentation inevitably leads to missed opportunities and the loss of mathematical talent – at both an individual and national level. The causes of such underrepresentation, according to our panellists, lie predominantly in a variety of barriers which continue to prevent girls from developing a strong and well-supported passion for mathematics from an early age.

Such barriers are predominantly rooted in social norms, whereby maths and science are too often believed to be the domain of men and boys. This leads not only to an all-too-frequent lack of female role models in STEM – especially in school settings – but also negative stereotypes around girls’ mathematical abilities, and lower levels of confidence among girls than among boys of similar attainment levels. It can also contribute to unconscious biases among teachers and school leaders, meaning that girls do not receive the encouragement they need to pursue these subject areas. This issue is further compounded by the additional barriers to girls’ education, especially during adolescence, not least that issues of sexual abuse remain common in some schools, disproportionately leading girls to drop out or perform poorly as their mental health is impacted.

Addressing these barriers is complex and multifaceted, but highly necessary. It requires work with boys, girls, men and women alike to challenge social norms and attitudes and to encourage all children – no matter their gender – to pursue an interest in mathematics and related subjects. Encouraging such interests at as early an age as possible appears likely to be important for engaging girls in these subjects, and while encouragement their curiosity would ideally start at home, schools provide a critically important avenue for this purpose.

Schools must therefore be equipped to help both girls and boys engage with these subjects effectively. To do so, Building Learning Foundations has adopted a gender transformative approach across its programme implementation, working at the intersections of gender equality, diversity and inclusion. In this case, it helps to counteract the misconception that science and maths are more appropriate for boys than girls by educating students about what different STEM fields and careers might involve, and highlighting that both men and women can be, for example, scientists or engineers.  Schools and communities can also be proactive in exposing pupils to successful female role models in STEM, especially if there are any from the school alumni, while also implementing a combination of general and girl-targeted interventions and extracurricular activities to foster a supportive, stereotype-free environment to build girls’ interests and confidence.

Moreover, teachers need support in implementing gender-inclusive practices, especially where this has not formed part of their initial training. In addition to training on effective – and inclusive – teaching in mathematics, BLF is keen to provide coaching and mentoring for teachers, encouraging them to praise girls for their capabilities in mathematics in particular. They also receive toolkits to help them incorporate inclusive practices into their teaching.

 

To find out more about the Building Learning Foundations programme, please click here.