While the number of girls is comparatively higher in higher and higher secondary education levels, fewer girls take up Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics or STEM subjects studies and programmes at the tertiary level.

This is evident from the education and skills development ministry’s Annual Education Statistics 2023 which show less than half of the total children enrolled in tertiary education, and technical and vocational institutes providing STEM programmes are girls. 

There were 340 female students compared to 737 male students at the College of Science and Technology (CST), 130 female students compared to 266 male students at Gyalphoizhing College of Information Technology, and 232 female students compared to 484 male students at Jigme Namgyal Engineering College. 

But this learning crisis among girls, as experts have labelled, is a global phenomenon that continues to baffle stakeholders dedicated to children’s education and wellbeing as less than 20 percent of the girls globally are enrolled in STEM programmes at the tertiary level of education. As a result, they also remain under-represented in STEM careers often referred to as jobs of the future, driving innovation, social wellbeing, inclusive growth, and sustainable development. 

At the higher secondary school level, the level that decides students to choose courses at the tertiary level, there were 2,638 more girls than boys in 2023, according to the annual education statistics, 2023. In 2022, there were 3,115 more girls than boys at the higher secondary level.

According to UNESCO, it is not by chance that only 17 women have won the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry, and medicine compared to 572 men. Girl’s under-representation in STEM education is deep rooted in biases, social norms, and expectations, it points out. Leading the UN 2030 Education Agenda to – ensure inclusive and quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all –  UNESCO has been trying to crack the code on the drivers of the factors that discourage girls from accessing STEM education.

A gender-based researcher, Changa Dorji, said the situation is no different for Bhutan, where society’s influence, gender stereotypes, and specified gender roles create barriers for girls from participating and continuing in STEM education, and eventually in STEM careers. 

Like elsewhere, the Bhutanese social construct perceived that girls perform better in ‘caregiving’ – related tasks. Almost as a testimony to the claim, the Annual Education Statistics 2023 show 609 female students compared to 216 enrolled in College of Language & Cultural Studies. Similarly, female students were more than half of the total enrollment at the College of Natural Resources, Samtse College of Education, and Paro College of Education. There were also more female trainee students in medical and health-related education programmes. 

But it was flawed to confine the issue to education alone.

Changa Dorji pointed out that it was a broader gender issue than a stand-alone education issue.  It began at home, in the community, and the society as a whole where children were groomed to confirm gender roles. For example, even the toys children bought were along gender-preferred influences of the parents. This is also included in the colours of choice, and roles at home, he said.

The curriculum in schools only reinforced it. 

“The unconscious biases shape girls and women to take up certain roles, and unfortunately we refuse to accept that girls can excel in STEM education, and women can take up leadership positions in STEM careers,” he said. 

The answer was not part of the sum  – such as transforming education, or changing labour laws, or changing society’s perceptions. It was a sum of all and could take a generation to witness the impact. A multi-pronged approach was necessary to remove barriers for girls to excel in STEM education and eventually take up STEM careers. 

However, it is encouraging to note that a conscious effort is underway in Bhutan to change the existing biases. A voluntary group of Bhutanese women in STEM careers have started Women in STEM Bhutan. There is another voluntary group, WePOWER, a network of women professionals in the power and energy sector in South Asia supported by the multilateral development banks, World Bank, and ADB. 

It is only a matter of time before there will be women leaders in STEM careers as role models breaking barriers, norms, long-held beliefs, and expectations that hold back girls from accessing, participating, and continuing STEM education, and pursuing STEM careers. 

Contributed by
Bishal Rai