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STEM education, gender diversity and the road to innovation

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By Viola Llewellyn, President and Co-Founder of Ovamba

Globally the STEM gender gap is closing, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. The National Science Foundation [NSF] in the US found that in social sciences, mathematics, physical sciences and biosciences, women accounted for around 50% of those earning bachelor’s degrees.

This is great news for equality in the fields, but there is still a marked gap in computer science and engineering. These two areas are becoming invaluable with technological advancements, and as an entrepreneur in the IT sector.

Systematic automation is an inevitability in the modern world, and it should not be feared because with it comes nascent opportunity for new technical positions – especially engineers and software developers. Unfortunately in Africa we face several obstacles on the road to widespread adoption of STEM education and the pursuit of these careers.

Young people across Africa are very keen to enter higher education, particularly in the STEM fields, but there is a huge shortage of qualified teachers. This leads to many students expatriating for their education, many of whom do not return to implement their skills at home creating a vicious cycle which is proving difficult to break. Those that do study on the continent will find that there are limited STEM opportunities, and those available do not necessarily guarantee employment leaving them faced with a different problem – the ‘theory’ trap.

Students in Africa tend to be theoretically inclined. Academically they are very strong and do well in class and in exams but find it difficult to translate these skills into practice. There are not enough practical opportunities during their education to combat this problem, and that is perpetuating the issue and ultimately hindering innovation across Africa.

From a gender diversity stand point the problem is even worse. Across much of Africa there are still very dated views of gender roles i.e. a woman’s place is in the house with the children. There is also the widespread misconception that the sciences are too difficult for women, an opinion that is even perpetuated in universities.

Both the lack of practicality and gender diversity are issues that could be alleviated with the help of private companies, especially the tech giants of Silicon Valley that preach global positive change, but are suspiciously quiet when it comes to local content development in Africa. By glossing over the unemployed youth of Africa, and by not doing more to combat the repression of women who want to enter STEM fields, companies are missing out on a huge well of potential innovators that are ready to contribute to positive global change.

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