On 21 March, a roundtable dialogue on ‘Women in STEM Education: Breaking Barriers and Achieving Gender Parity in Technology and Innovation’ was jointly organised by GIZ Bangladesh and Prothom Alo. The discussion summary is published in brief here. Notably, this dialogue was supported by the European Union, UN Women, and Devtale Partners.
Charles Whiteley Ambassador and Head of Delegation, European Union
Rasheda K Chowdhury Executive Director, Mass Literacy Campaign; Former Education Advisor to Caretaker Govt
Rubana Huq Vice Chancellor, Asian University for Women
Lafifa Jamal Professor, Department of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering, University of Dhaka
Tahmina Yeasmin Joint Secretary, Energy Division
Dr. Frank Fecher Coordinator, Energy Programme, GIZ Bangladesh
Dilruba Haider Program Specialist, UN Women
Sami Ahmed Managing Director, Startup Bangladesh
Kaniz Fatema Chief Executive Officer, BDOSN and Director, Bangladesh Women in Technology
Nahid Sharmin Gender Specialist, A2I
Tanuja Bhattacharjee Energy Specialist, World Bank
Farzana Rahman Executive Vice President, IDCOL
Md. Arif Raihan Maahi Chief Impact Officer, Devtale Partners
Ananya Rubayat Advisor, Energy Programme, GIZ Bangladesh
Abdul Quayum Associate Editor, Prothom Alo
Firoz Choudhury Assistant Editor, Prothom Alo
Today’s topic of discussion is ‘ Breaking Barriers and Achieving Gender Parity in STEM Education’. Despite progress, the participation of women in technical education and the workforce remains relatively low in our country. It is important to explore ways to address this issue and pave the way for greater opportunities for women in this field.”
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality. This was also the theme of the 67th meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This year 181 different countries and observers participated in this meeting.
Gender equality is one of the most important issues these days. By 2050, 75 per cent of jobs will be related to STEM education. The global tech industry workforce remains predominantly male, with women comprising less than one-third of its total workforce. There is a significant gender pay gap of 21 percent, and almost half of the women report experiencing harassment at work. In addition, there exists a considerable gender gap in mobile phone ownership, with women owning 29 per cent fewer phones than men. Similarly, the gender gap in mobile internet usage is as high as 52 per cent, indicating that women are using the internet but they use it much less frequently than men.
We believe technology and innovation are effective for the development of human rights and most importantly women’s rights. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the digital divide became evident. It was difficult for a woman to access information and even vaccination programs. Bangladesh is making significant strides towards inclusive digital development, with the government taking a proactive role in bridging the digital divide. In line with this, the Hon’ble Prime Minister has pledged to achieve gender equality in the technology start-up and e-commerce sector by 2041, as announced at an international forum. To ensure greater gender equality, we must promote equal opportunities for men and women from primary to higher education levels. Furthermore, we must prioritize STEM education and strengthen the role of stakeholders in this area to achieve our goals.
Dr. Frank Fecher
Dr. Frank Fecher
Dr. Frank Fecher
The German government has adopted a Feminist Development Policy. This policy prioritizes creating a more inclusive and equitable society through increasing women’s participation in decision-making processes, inclusion in education and healthcare, and women’s economic empowerment. Through joint development projects of the German and Bangladeshi governments, GIZ Bangladesh is committed to tackling the root causes of gender inequality by addressing structural and systemic barriers through our development initiatives. Since 2004, GIZ Bangladesh has been actively engaged in promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives. Given the technical nature of this sector, professionals and entrepreneurs involved in these fields require specialized skills. Unfortunately, when we examine the human resources of organisations operating in the power and energy sector, we observe a significant gender imbalance, with fewer women compared to men. This disparity is even greater at the decision-making or leadership level meaning there are even fewer women among higher-ranked employees. If we don’t specify the inclusion of women trainees in capacity development programs, the participation rate is often less than 5 percent. This imbalance is seen in many reputed institutions, both public and private, even though their recruitment process is impartial.
Gradually, fortunately, the number of female students in technology and engineering education is increasing at the university level. Two years ago we organized an innovation competition on sustainable energy at the university level. The winning teams included several female students, and one team even consisted entirely of female participants. This serves as proof that female students possess a great deal of interest and talent, and highlights the importance of providing equal opportunities to all aspiring students, regardless of gender.
At GIZ Bangladesh we want to help create employment opportunities for professional women in the energy sector in a way that they can creatively develop their skills in an inclusive environment. We need to look at exactly what kind of support women need to be more confident in choosing technical careers. Besides, we have to think about what kind of structural development the institutions need to create such a working environment.
When I studied in the computer science and engineering department of Dhaka University, there were only 3 female students out of 20 students. Similarly, in 2016 when I took over as the chairperson of the robotics department, out of our first batch of 16 students, only 3 were women. Currently, we only see around 5 women students out of a total of 25 in STEM programmes, particularly in engineering. However, the participation of female students in other STEM subjects such as botany, zoology, and psychology is relatively high. According to statistics, around 25 to 30 percent of women enroll in STEM programs, but this drops to 12 to 15 percent in the workplace. To address this issue, we must focus on generating interest among girl students in STEM education from an early age. Incorporating experiential learning in the curriculum can help reduce fear and apprehension towards STEM subjects. Therefore, it is essential to give priority to STEM education at the school level.
In our existing society and culture, there is a disparity in the toys a child is given by their parents while growing up. They always buy dolls for girls, while boys are given footballs or cars. If the child is a boy, most people will say “He will be an engineer”. But it won’t happen if it’s a girl, meaning the people in our society can’t imagine a girl becoming an engineer.
In the current education system, students in Bangladesh must choose between science, business education, and humanities departments after completing 8th grade. Parents play a significant role in this decision-making process. Research has shown that female students from rural areas often face financial barriers to studying in the science department. Parents may prioritize investing in the education of their sons and the marriage of their daughters over their daughters’ education in the science department. While there are exceptions to this, this is a common trend across the country, presenting a significant challenge to achieving gender parity in STEM education.
Coming from an engineering background, I believe that the lack of political will is a major obstacle to achieving gender equality in the power and energy sector. It is unclear whether there are specific targets for gender equality in this sector at the policy-making level. This could explain why in the SDG progress report, the power and energy sector reports on its progress towards SDG-7 (affordable and clean energy) but does not provide information on its position or achievements towards SDG-5 (gender equality).
Similarly, although there are various initiatives to bring gender equality at the secondary and higher secondary levels, achieving gender equality in technical education is still out of consideration. There seems to be a lack of institutional action in recognizing the importance of gender equality in technical education and addressing the barriers that hinder women’s participation. This has contributed to the perpetuation of misconceptions that women are less interested in technical fields or that engineering requires more physical labor.
Bangladesh has already achieved the target of 100% electrification. Milestones in the coming days in this sector will be on ensuring the quality of power supply, technical efficiency, and excellence. Modernization of the power sector and the expansion of renewable energy will create new jobs and opportunities. Sustainable and cost-effective power infrastructure requires new technologies and a roadmap for creating the required manpower.
As the clean energy transition continues globally, 30 million jobs will be created by 2030. Policies like net metering are also creating opportunities for consumer investment and active participation. The big question is how we want to see the participation of women in this sector to accelerate this potential. If the power and energy master plan does not prioritize the participation of women, the development and progress of the sector will be affected.
When we hear the word technology education, we first think about engineering or information technology education. However, the participation of women in technical and vocational technology education in Bangladesh is also very low. Data from vocational training institutes or polytechnics shows that the enrollment rate of girls is low, and their presence in these related workplaces is even lower.
In Bangladesh, industrialisation is gradually gaining prominence and the use of technology in industrialization simultaneously increasing, which requires a large number of technically skilled workers. In the power and energy sector, priority is currently being given to the expansion of renewable energy, which will create various new job opportunities across the country. We must move forward with specific goals to increase the participation of women in this emerging sector.
The number of polytechnic institutes for women should be increased and the curriculum of the institutions should be updated and rearranged according to the needs of the country and abroad. Besides, equal employment opportunities should be created for women students by establishing contact between the training center and the recruiting institution. At the same time, attention should also be paid to improving the workplace environment and ensuring safety. It is also necessary to create a platform so that trained women can work independently if they desire. Our sustainable development and energy transition will not become inclusive if such changes are not brought about at all levels.
While working in the field, we see that there is a digital divide in terms of access to information, smart devices, and internet access. A comprehensive policy is necessary at all levels of education to ensure equal access to the Internet for women. There is a common societal perception that girls are not capable of performing well in STEM education or technology-related fields. When we hear doctor, we assume woman and when we hear engineer, we assume man. We need to create awareness on these issues. In the current era of the fourth industrial revolution, traditional academic disciplines are not always necessary to acquire the skills required for employment in the technology sector. One can develop their skills in their own unique way and still achieve success. There are some challenges for women in the workplace. There are not enough daycare centers. Going to work after leaving a child or taking care of household chores is a major obstacle for women. After the Covid-19 pandemic, opportunities of working from home has increased. So if a woman acquires skills in technology, she can work from home like freelancing or outsourcing. The media can highlight the positive aspects related to this.
IDCOL is a government-owned financial institution. This organization works to implement several technology-based projects. This organization is actively working towards achieving renewable energy targets and has a dedicated technology team, making it a unique financial institution in Bangladesh. However, it is unfortunate that the representation of women workers in this team is not significant. Participation of women in technology-based projects is very important. Women have a particularly important role to play in increasing the use of renewable energy. But we cannot ensure the presence of women even by organizing various workshops and training. As a result, many projects designed for women do not see the light of day. Although there are special opportunities for women in various investments and project implementation, it is sometimes difficult to find qualified candidates. With the energy transition in the future, new jobs will be created and most of them will be technology dependent. The increase in new employment opportunities will not address the issue of inequality unless we also increase the number of female students at the graduate level. We must address this issue sooner rather than later.
Md. Arif Raihan Maahi
Md. Arif Raihan Maahi
Md. Arif Raihan Maahi
Before we can ensure women’s participation in the tech sector, we need to know what percentage of women enrolls at the graduate level. To address the low enrollment of female students in graduate-level technical education, it is important to understand why many secondary and higher secondary students choose to pursue other subjects. The University Grants Commission could play a role in gathering and regularly publishing information-based reports to help policy decisions made by the Ministry of Education. Women’s participation in technical education is largely influenced by industry interests. Unfortunately, many industries, particularly those in the power and energy sector, are not keen on hiring female engineers, which severely affects their participation in technical education. In addition, career advancement is another significant factor. Women account for less than 1 percent of the management boards in various organizations in the renewable energy sector. We need to reform the assessment of women’s careers in the workplace.
In our social context, women have less opportunity to develop leadership qualities than men. Socially, while a man has ample opportunity to build networks, work, and social relationships, a woman has relatively less opportunity. Therefore, trainings should be organized to develop the leadership skills of women at different stages of their education and even at the beginning of their careers. Recently, we conducted a training program called ‘Shoktikonna’ to cultivate capable women leaders in the renewable energy sector, and now many organizations in the sector are benefiting from it. It’s crucial to sustain such initiatives.
We have digital centers in almost every union parishad across the country, with one female and one male entrepreneur working in each. However, in many places, women entrepreneurs are not active, so our main task is to activate them. It’s crucial to increase women’s participation in the digital economy. In our centers, women entrepreneurs provide both public and private digital services. In this era, technology is essential, and it’s important to connect with it to move forward in building a Smart Bangladesh.
According to a recent study, 75% of jobs in Southeast Asia will require digital skills by 2030. a2i’s ‘Future of Education’ project focuses on digital education with three initiatives. Both students and teachers can participate in project activities and take courses. A2i also has a digital economic services project and is working on how to increase women’s participation in it. To achieve equality in technology education, three things are essential: accessibility, affordability, and digital security.
STEM education, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is an essential part of education and should be integrated into the core curriculum. Technical education should be mandatory for all students. Our organization has trained around 40-50 thousand individuals in information and technology, with a target of 30% participation by women. However, the actual participation of women was only 5-10%. We have since increased participation by training girls in schools and colleges. Hopefully, the participation of women in the power and energy sector will also gradually increase. I have been in contact with several companies dealing with solar, renewable energy, electric vehicles, etc. We are trying to invest in them. There is a lot of work to be done on these issues.
Many potential women entrepreneurs may not develop due to various social barriers. The government has taken various steps to encourage entrepreneurship and there are various incentives for women entrepreneurs. These incentive programs need further promotion.
The European Union’s She Figures 2021 report shows a low representation of women with Ph.D. degrees in various fields, including Physics (38.4%), Mathematics and Statistics (32.5%), Information Technology (20.8%), Engineering and Engineering Business (27%), Manufacturing and Processing (40.9%), and Architecture and Construction (37.2%). Major obstacles in these areas are child-rearing responsibilities on women, sociocultural attitudes, and lack of financial capability of women.
Enhancing women’s participation in technology education is essential to meet challenges such as renewables and digital transformation. The energy sector is one of the most male-dominated sectors globally. However, female participation in the renewable energy sector is higher than in fossil fuel jobs, at around 32%.
The EU is dedicated to establishing a renewable energy system that also increases energy efficiency. They also aim to achieve gender equality in the energy sector through several programs, which will be implemented via the EU-GIZ joint partnership project. To ensure effectiveness, the programs will focus on collecting and managing gender-disaggregated data. Women from various fields, including engineering students, government officials, renewable energy sector workers, women entrepreneurs, and household energy users, can all contribute significantly to driving change in the energy sector. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that diversity is not only a matter of fairness, but also an opportunity for women in leadership, and that there are plenty of women qualified for top jobs.
According to a survey, the number of women among secretaries and district administrators is about 11 to 12 percent. On the other hand, In the energy sector, around 31% of the workforce are women. But it’s not all bad news. Women are recruited through highly competitive exams, and they can compete on an equal basis. Moreover, the government has given importance to Sustainable Development Goals. Several Sustainable Development Goals have encouraged women’s participation. Various ministries of the government are taking special plans for women in budget formulation. This gender budget will play a strong role in increasing the participation of women in the technology sector.
Despite the waiver of quotas in job tests, women are still performing well in competitive exams. Therefore, creating more opportunities can increase women’s participation. Additionally, successful professionals and entrepreneurs can serve as role models to inspire women. Improved communication networks among women can also create new opportunities. Organizations should offer internships to graduate students to create skilled manpower and strengthen the relationship between academia and industry. This will benefit both parties.
The Asian University for Women (AUW) is primarily a humanities university. We have the opportunity to do two majors. If one major is from humanities, the other must be a scientific subject. The mainstream education system of Bangladesh has to be changed. Coding education should start from the fifth grade. Our university has a course called CS-50. This is a Harvard University course. At Harvard University, students spend 20 to 25 hours a week on this course. Our university students are also doing the same course. These can be done in coordination with international universities. There are some certificate courses on Google. Some of these are also free. These are basically 6-month courses and students are employable after completing these courses. The education system needs to be integrated with the qualification of getting a job. We can create some courses related to technology from the initial stage. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics have advanced quite a lot. The time to start is now. Women have faced discrimination for a long time, we now want priority, not equality.
Rasheda K Chowdhury
Rasheda K Chowdhury
Rasheda K Chowdhury
Science and technology education must be started from an initial stage. Investment is also important. We do not have any scientific data on science and technology education in Bangladesh. So how is it possible to plan? Are ethnic minorities or specially abled people absent from science and technology education?
Is science and technology education gender neutral? Women’s participation is enormous. But is there a partnership? From politics to economics, there is participation of women everywhere. But how many of them have the power to make decisions? So we have to make a difference in this place. The media must work in this aspect.
Women are working at home. But for many women, it has become an additional burden because at the same time they must deal with household chores. Around 1974, we were running an ‘Education for All’ campaign. On the other hand, NGOs were carrying out a literacy drive. At that time, ‘three-crops a year’-related programs were also going on. Because of this, women had to do much extra work. In the midst of all this, asking women to come to these places in their leisure time was a violation of human rights. That’s why we adopted a strategy of balancing. We have to maintain balance today as well.
The recommendations raised in this discussion are expected to be taken seriously by policymakers. Prothom Alo thanks everyone for participating in the round table meeting.
● Emphasis should be placed on providing women with greater opportunities to pursue technical education
● Recruitment and progress review processes need to be reformed for equal participation of women in the workplace.
● Efforts should be made to enhance employment prospects for women in the power and energy sector
● If new jobs are created in the energy sector, related trainings should be available beforehand.
● Special trainings need to be organized at the university level and workplace to develop leadership skills.
● The status of women’s participation in technology education should be highlighted through research.
● Emphasis should be placed on the inclusion of experts in gender budget formulation and budget implementation.
● To promote greater gender equality and overcome gender stereotypes, it is important to bolster the role of media in encouraging women’s participation in technology