Around the World, Girls Still Face Challenges in STEM Education

Education expert Joann DiGennaro talks about the challenges and opportunities in improving learning in STEM fields.

By Sintia Radu.  Source:



AS THE SEVENTH International Day of the Girl is observed on Thursday, experts remind the public that providing a complete education for girls and women worldwide remains a challenge. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, girls are still more likely than boys to never enter into a school system, yet countries are committed to closing the gender gap by 2030 and also achieve universal completion of secondary education.

According to a February UNESCO report, “Historically, girls and young women were more likely to be excluded from education.”

“However globally, the male and female out-of-school rates for the lower secondary and upper secondary school-age populations are now nearly identical, while the gender gap among children of primary school age dropped from more than five percentage points in 2000 to two percentage points in 2016,” the report adds.

Education still faces problems related to continuous funding, a long-term strategy, and not benefiting from experts among the decision makers, says Joann DiGennaro, co-founder and president of the Center for Excellence in Education, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that supports outstanding high school and college students in STEM fields. Solutions need to come soon, DiGennaro says, and might involve retraining educators and creating new partnerships around the world to share expertise and resources.

DiGennaro spoke with U.S. News about the challenges in educating for girls, and which countries are providing useful positive examples. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the major challenges in education today?

I think the major challenges have remained the same ones for many years: How do you provide opportunities for students from underrepresented populations and broaden that pipeline, particularly in STEM, where many rural and urban teachers have difficulties in even providing the laboratory equipment and laboratory experiments? I still go into many schools where the track coach is teaching a science where labs are so minimal. When you look at the competition in the world and in the U.S., students are behind the eight ball because teachers have not been prepared for what it takes.

[MORE: See which countries are viewed as the best for women.]

Is there enough money for funding education programs to support girls?

Many times it’s not just a money issue. It’s a commitment issue for the jurisdiction, the state and of course the federal government in not being able to fund things on a continual basis. It’s stop-and-go, so it isn’t cost effective in the planning and regarding the cost it takes to start a program, and then the rug is taken out. But that is a problem that we continue to fight. The glass is half full. There is tremendous progress on women in STEM. When we had our first program in 1984, the research science institute was 11 percent female, all Asian except one, and all biology except one. Now we will go up to 40 percent to 46 percent where women are represented across the board in subject areas — except we’d still like more in computer science and physics, but of course in biology and in several areas there are more females than male. So the numbers are improving. I just wish they were a little faster.

What are some of the issues you see abroad?

Gender inequity is, for instance, (still an issue) in India, in the villages. One (challenge) is language of course — it’s difficult when they do not speak English in the villages, but certainly they do in the main cities. But looking at young girls who don’t go to class when they reach a certain age of middle school, (we found out one reason was) they didn’t have bathrooms for the kids. Simple little nuances, common-sense issues. The girls were having their periods each month and because they didn’t have proper (facilities), they were ashamed and stopped coming to school. In Saudi Arabia the girls, just like in the U.S. most of the time, will outperform gradewise the boys, but in answering questions, they’ll defer (to the boys). Parents and peers still believe that STEM is for boys. There are inroads (for girls) throughout the world, but they are not at the degree we would like them.

What happens in the U.S.?

Girls in universities will start out with STEM, but many times we see at the second year they will switch. It’s a complex issue. We applaud that there are more opportunities, but the issues of bench (basic) science need to be looked at carefully. Promotions are coming at a rapid rate for women with the proper credentials for tenureship, but we have only the second woman in a decade with a tenure track at Harvard in math and only the fifth woman to receive a Nobel in chemistry. Women (are looking for) the fields that pay the most and where they can combine having children, family and doing the bench science.

[MORE: Learn which countries are considered as the best for education.]

Which countries are doing a good job at this?

I am always amazed at the Balkans. Many of those countries were (using the) Russian model and looking at Romania and Bulgaria, they are a little monolithic but have a history of promoting women in science going back to the olympiads for high school students that have been around since the ’50s. (They are) promoting women, nurturing women and have a different model. I look at Israel in promoting women in science through its short history and the programs done in engineering with women. Sometimes your smaller nations see the necessity much more quickly than your larger nations.

One hot topic now is artificial intelligence and how AI will shape the future. Are educators ready to teach this?

Everybody is hot on AI, but probably 99 percent of them don’t know what it is. (We need) teacher training, but even before that (we need) the school systems to look at what they are saying about AI – how it is a reality in their school system. There has to be a commitment from the decision-makers and most decision-makers are bureaucrats, many of them with a legal background, while in China in the Standing Committee, 8 out of 9 are engineers.

What can smaller nations do to teach AI?

With online resources and a commitment for alliances you have to think out of the box to get help. And China is always waiting to help a nation in AI, as long as they get something in return. (If) there’s interest and commitment, but not the resources and not the know-how, it’s alliances that are gonna solve the difficulty. (Countries like) Israel, Japan, and Taiwan are interested (in AI). Saudi Arabia (is interested) in this, (and so is) Rwanda, who wants to be the technology capital of Africa.

In the U.S. we should be leading this and leading it for our own students. I have been in China every eight to 10 weeks for the last four years consulting and I can tell you that national commitment to AI and cyber is loud and clear. I worry about our commitments to (create) viable opportunities in education starting early. The discussion has to take place now