This letter was originally sent to LightCastle Bimonthly Newsletter subscribers.
As Bangladesh becomes ready to confront an array of complex challenges — from economic stagnation to climate change to global health epidemics to rising inequality — the role of STEM has become instrumental in the technology-driven world. However, the participation of women in STEM occupations is equally essential, because diversity is a key factor in innovation and development.
The future of Bangladesh will depend significantly on innovation, technological adaptation, and a cultivable workforce, which includes both males and females. There is a direct correlation between the development of a country and its practice of science and technology.
One study predicts that by 2030, 80% of jobs in Southeast Asia will require basic digital and applied literacy in the fields of ICT. Furthermore, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that over the next two decades, the employability of women who are predominantly in jobs that require little to no STEM skills will be put at risk.
While the advancement of women in myriad sectors relative to its neighbors may deem to be quite satisfactory — in Bangladesh, 35% of the female working population is actively engaged compared to 20% in India and 22% in Pakistan — the enhancement of women’s participation in STEM is still below average.
Despite better results by girls than boys at the primary and secondary levels, the percentage of girls enrolling in STEM subjects at the tertiary level is relatively low. And more drop out of this stage, primarily because: (a) limited knowledge about work opportunities and relevant skills; (b) lack of networking platforms; (c) improper knowledge about related labor market returns; and (d) non-female friendly workplace and associated policies.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) last Labor Force Survey 2016-17, the labor force participation rate for Bangladeshi women stood at around 38% compared to 84% for men.
Interestingly, the gap is further widened because of a lack of collaboration between the universities. Partnerships/internship opportunities with employers are few and far between. Findings from one of our studies with ADB in 2019 report family commitments and security concerns among employers, as well as social stigma, collectively hinder female participation in CSE/IIT programs and IT/ITES-related jobs.
Findings also corroborated that a large percentage of women self-select out of careers because of not having female-friendly working policies. Other notable factors include: workplace safety, hygiene factors, and non-discriminatory practices within the organizations. In addition, larger drop-out rates and career transitions to non-relevant fields are evident.
From the employers’ perspective, it is important to view the participation of women as not just improving gender equality. Research suggests that the effects of gender diversity on team performance and productivity — with full-time female project managers in the workforce — in fact, improved capacity utilization and innovation for technology companies. To this end, organizational recruitment strategies can play a vital role in attracting and retaining women in workplaces. Additionally, skills development should be a continuous process and can start in the workplace.
Society, community, and media need to play a more active role to influence the decisions of family members and build trust and confidence to view STEM as a critical subject for their girls’ growth.
Alongside internships and job placements in larger organizations, the opportunity to step into the burgeoning startup scene may also appear lucrative for young women. Most of the startups in Bangladesh are tech-enabled, spanning fintech, agri-tech, and logistics tech, among others. With the rise of the startup ecosystem, there will be an increasing need for women to fill in various roles including, but not limited to, actuarial science, AI, data analytics, graphics design, engineering, biochemistry, et al.
Active participation in STEM-related roles is critical to advance scientific and technological innovations to build a robust, knowledge-driven economy. Through STEM education, women can help fill the growing skills gap while contributing to higher productivity activities and economy-wide competitiveness. It promotes women’s participation in the decision-making process, and their decisions which take into account the needs of a wider segment of society, can lead to more inclusive policies and results.
To that end, several countries in the region have already identified the barriers for women in STEM at different stages and subsequently designed strategic roadmaps such as through ILO in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and Pakistan, Bangladesh, unfortunately, is lagging behind.
With women accounting for half of the nation’s potential talent base, empowering them yields one of the highest returns of all development investments. Before it gets too late, innovative interventions to properly discern the pockets of opportunities in view of developing a systemic change in collaboration with public, development, and private partners is now the clarion call of the hour.
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