Let me introduce you to six women who can describe the whole journey of Girls in STEM from Bangladesh in the best way possible- Khaleda Shahriar Kabir (Dora), Manowara Begam and Shirin Sultana (Chumki) fought to break the glass ceiling and got themselves admitted to the then East Pakistan University of Engineering and Technology, currently BUET in 1964 when women were prohibited to study in the engineering departments. Fast forwarding to 2020, Dr. Firdausi Qadri of Icddr,b, Dr. Salma Sultana of Model Livestock Advancement Foundation and Prof Samia Subrina of BUET—three Bangladeshi women were included in the sixth edition of the list ‘Asian Scientist 100’, which is a Singapore-based science and technology magazine. The list was published to honor the achievements of the region’s “best and brightest” in a variety of scientific areas. From fighting against university authorities for studying engineering to getting globally recognized by an international magazine, how amazing and challenging the journey has been for the girls of Bangladesh!
The pioneer of women empowerment, Begum Rokeya wrote in ‘Motichur’ in 1904: “We shall do whatever is needed to be equal to men. If we have to earn independently in order to gain independence, then we should do that… Why shouldn’t we earn? Don’t we have hands, legs, and intellect? Can’t we engage in business with the amount of energy that we spend in household work in the husband’s place? Why are we crying if the girls are not married off? Educate your daughters properly and let them enter the workplace; they can earn their own livelihood.“
Though we have come a long way from Begum Rokeya’s era, we should really be concerned about what our girls are studying. Is education preparing them to be active members of society? Without STEM education and work opportunities, women will not be able to realize their full potential. They are risking being unemployed or being in low-paid jobs that may not exist in the near future due to technological advances. They will also miss out on future jobs, as shifting economies demand diversified skills.
According to a UNICEF report titled “Towards an equal future: Reimagining girls’ education through STEM”, women and girls face difficulties in accessing quality learning opportunities in STEM. Girls tend to outperform boys in reading skills in most regions, but they are under-represented amongst top performers in STEM subjects. Girls’ career expectations are marred by gender stereotypes. More boys than girls aspire to develop a career as a scientist and/or engineer (in 72 out of 78 countries) or an ICT professional (in all countries). However, the number of girls who are interested in a career in the health sector (in all countries) is greater compared to boys.
Research has shown that by age 15, unlike boys, girls begin to lose confidence in STEM subjects. By the age of 16, only 25% of girls will picture a female as a scientist if asked. This loss of confidence is a direct outcome of the challenges that women face when pursuing STEM education and in related professions. Moreover, stereotypes about STEM as masculine subjects and social norms about what girls can and should do are reproduced in teachers and parental expectations. Hence, this somehow shapes girls’ beliefs and attitudes towards STEM.
Bangladeshi society places a disproportionate emphasis on women’s reproductive and caregiving roles. As a result, they face a lot of barriers to excelling in their chosen professional fields, including STEM. I have known many young women with brilliant academic results in STEM subjects at the university level in Bangladesh. Most of them cannot dream freely about their careers, as family and society pose restrictions on what is expected from them.
The following could be done to facilitate the active participation of girls and women in STEM related education and jobs. Celebrating female role models is very important. Nearly half of all girls interested in STEM do not know much about women in a STEM career. In a recent interview published in The Daily Star, Tonima Tasnim Ananna mentioned that her interest in astronomy grew from an early age (five years) when her mother told her stories about the Pathfinder spacecraft landing on Mars. Since then, Tonima dreamt of becoming a scientist and could not visualize being anything else. Parents must raise girls in a confident way like this, which will inspire them to be ambitious and courageous in realizing their dreams. Parents and caregivers should choose books, toys, animation films, etc. for children very thoughtfully so that they can have their own choices without feeling confined by gender stereotypes.
Do we want our girls to aspire to be scientists and reach leadership positions in their chosen fields? If yes, popular culture (television, magazine, drama, films, advertisements, etc.) must stop showing women in passive roles, obsessed with beauty and performing household and caregiving responsibilities only. There should be conscious efforts by all to portray successful women in STEM and other sectors, which currently is an insufficient practice.
When educators talk to girls about STEM and actively encourage them, girls become more interested in these subjects. It is important to engage girls in hands-on STEM activities and/or let them shadow a STEM job for a certain period. A harsh truth is, in many rural schools of Bangladesh girls are not even allowed to choose science in 9th grade. Both men and women well-established in STEM careers can be mentors to young girls, especially to the girls who live in such rural areas.
Social norms should be changed, and all members of society must learn to treat men and women equally and value women’s academic and professional achievements. Only then will girls and women be able to contribute to all fields, including STEM, according to the best of their abilities.
- Hayat, A. (2022, March 16). Pioneering Women: The first 3 female Buet engineers who broke the glass ceiling. The Business Standard. https://www.tbsnews.net/bangladesh/pioneering-women/first-3-female-buet-engineers-who-broke-glass-ceiling-385682
- Star Digital Report. (2021, April 28). 3 Bangladeshi researchers named in Asian Scientist 100 list. The Daily Star. https://www.thedailystar.net/science/news/3-bangladeshi-researchers-named-asian-scientist-100-list-2085337
- Sánchez-Tapia, I., Alam, A. (2020, October). Towards an equal future: Reimagining girls’ education through STEM. UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/media/84046/file/Reimagining-girls-education-through-stem-2020.pdf
- Mondira, R. T. (2021, January 15). Tonima Tasnim Ananna’s visionary aspirations; How the Bangladeshi astrophysicist made it to SN 10: Scientists to Watch. The Daily Star. https://www.thedailystar.net/star-youth/news/tonima-tasnim-anannas-visionary-aspirations-2028121