Educational inequality: are our girls losing out?

by Laurel Pretorius
Gender inequalities in education in South Africa
Reading Time: 3 minutes
The short answer is yes, discrimination in schools still exists for our daughters, especially in the STEM subjects, writes Laurel Pretorius.

Recently, UNESCO, the UN’s educational and cultural agency, shared encouraging news: Girls are now excelling in math on par with boys, even though persistent barriers still hinder their progress.

UNESCO’s comprehensive analysis of primary and secondary education in 120 countries revealed this noteworthy shift. While boys initially outperform girls in math during the early years, this gender gap disappears in secondary school, transcending economic disparities in even the world’s most impoverished nations.

All good news, right? Yet even after all this progress, UNESCO reports that gender biases and stereotypes still inhibit girls’ from moving forward in math, whereas boys tend to be overrepresented at the highest levels. This problem extends to science, as secondary school girls, despite scoring higher in scientific studies, are still less likely to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.

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Sexism & gender bias

UNICEF echoed these concerns in its report, revealing a growing global disparity in math skills between girls and boys. Sexism and gender stereotypes were identified as key contributors to this divide, and it is often teachers, parents, and peers who project these negative norms onto girls, ultimately undermining their self-confidence and potential to succeed.

In the report, Catherine Russell, UNICEF executive director, stressed that girls possess equal ability in learning math but still face a lack of equal opportunities to acquire critical skills. The report called for the dispelling of gender stereotypes and norms to ensure every child, regardless of gender, can succeed in school and life.

“There is an even greater gender bias in South Africa’s rural spaces, where boys and girls are often being prepared for certain future roles. There are also many underserved schools, with few opportunities to experience and interact with tech,” says Kate Groch, CEO & founder of the Good Work Foundation, an open learning academy with a programme providing wonder-filled digital and blended learning activities to rural children.

We must find solutions to this discriminatory problem in our schools because the knock-on effect will have a serious impact on our daughters’ futures.

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Here are 3 ways inequality will have a negative influence:
  1. Limited career choices: Discrimination in math and science discourages girls from pursuing STEM careers, which further limits their professional options perpetuating gender imbalances in critical fields.
  2. Eroded confidence: Biases in these subjects wears down girls’ confidence, hindering their willingness to take on challenges and pursue advanced studies or careers in STEM.
  3. Economic disadvantage: By girls missing out on STEM opportunities they face limited access to well-paid careers, which simply perpetuates broader income inequalities.

It’s time we started finding ways to end the obvious gender bias so prevalent in our classrooms, and it should begin with us parents. So, here’s how we can begin to help our daughters embrace the STEM subjects and finally put inequality to rest:

  • Emphasise positive role models: Expose girls to successful women in STEM fields while challenging stereotypes and inspiring confidence in pursuit of math and science. “This will motivate and inspire young girls to emulate them,” says Groch.
  • Encourage early exposure: Introduce girls to math and science at a young age, fostering a love for these subjects through hands-on activities and engaging experiences. “The earlier that children can start specialised maths and science education the better in terms of their brain development,” says Gemay van Heerden, co-founder and owner of Edify, an organisation that specialises in tutoring math and the sciences.
  • Be involved: Actively participate in your daughter’s education, advocating for equal opportunities and challenging any instances of gender bias or discrimination.
  • Support STEM programmes: Enrol your daughter in extracurricular STEM programs to encourage a passion for these subjects outside the classroom. “It is important for organisations like Good Work Foundation, running parallel to the formal school system, to introduce tech and STEM opportunities in rural schools,” Groch reiterates.

The UNESCO report proves that our daughters have all the potential to excel in math and the sciences. It simply requires schools, educators, and parents to come to the party. Let’s work together to break down the barriers of inequality and give our daughters better opportunities and brighter futures.

Best of all is Wynand van Heerden, co-founder and owner of Edify concludes that “Girls do not seem to feel in any way limited in their ambitions to enter careers that require STEM subjects and I think we are going to see the results of this in the next 10 years.”

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