from Women and Foreign Policy Program and Women Around the World

Girls' STEM Education Can Drive Economic Growth

Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This piece is authored by Gwendoline Tilghman, a technology investor.

June 16, 2017

Students learn work on computers in a class during the holy month of Ramadan at the Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school in Solo, Indonesia Central Java province, August 2, 2011. REUTERS/Beawiharta
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As the world transitions to an increasingly digital economy, closing the global gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is crucial to empowering women economically and addressing the shortage of qualified individuals needed to meet the burgeoning demand of technology jobs. To address the global STEM gender gap, the U.S. government should continue supporting girls' education and entry into STEM fields, at home and around the world.

The STEM gender gap starts in school. The World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap Report revealed that only 16 percent of all female students graduate with STEM degrees, in contrast to 30 percent of all male students. A number of factors influence this disparity, including gender stereotypes and a lack of female role models who have advanced in the field. A study conducted by Girls Who Code found that the lack of female friends studying computing also resulted in high school girls in the United States being 30 percent less likely to study computing. Because STEM jobs tend to require STEM degrees or relevant training, the low rate of girls completing STEM education leads to women's underrepresentation in these high-growth industries later on. 

By failing to develop and tap into the talents of half of the world's population, developed and emerging economies alike miss out on a major growth opportunity. Demand for computer scientists and data analysts is expected to outpace supply by 2025. Increasing women's participation in STEM careers also has the power to close the gender pay gap and boost women's cumulative earnings by $299 billion over the next ten years, expediting global economic development. Thus women's participation in STEM fields could spur economic growth and promote gender equality worldwide.

Recognizing that women's participation in STEM jobs around the world advances U.S. interests, previous U.S. government efforts have sought to increase girls' education and participation in STEM fields through foreign assistance and cultural exchange programs. USAID, for example, helped fund schools, such as the El Maadi STEM School for Girls in Egypt, to provide girls with a STEM education and help close the skilled labor force gap. The inter-governmental Let Girls Learn Initiative has worked with the State Department since its inception in 2015 to hold Women in Science (WiSci) Girls STEAM camps, bringing together high school girls from the United States and abroad to build their STEM abilities and develop leadership skills. The WiSci camps have been held all over the world, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation's Girl Up campaign and private sector leaders like Google, Intel Corporation, and Microsoft, who have all recognized the strong business case for girls' STEM education. 

It is unclear what the new administration's plans are for programming to support girls' education and participation in STEM fields worldwide. What is clear, though, is that the Trump administration could advance U.S. interests by expanding upon and scaling existing State Department and USAID initiatives to promote girls' STEM education and close the global STEM gender gap. Even as the administration proposes dramatically scaling back resources for foreign aid, STEM education for girls remains a cost-effective investment.

Another way that the Trump administration can do so is by improving data collection, monitoring, and evaluation of policies aimed at tackling inequalities in STEM fields to better understand which programs are most effective and efficient.

An additional piece of the equation is supporting and expanding upon private-public partnerships—like those that undergird the WiSci camps—to maximize the impact of initiatives targeted at increasing girls' education and participation in STEM worldwide. 

Finally, the Trump administration can work toward expanding girls' access to the Internet, which contributes to the gender gap in STEM education and in STEM fields. The gap is especially apparent in developing countries, where 23 percent fewer women are online compared to men, according to Intel's 2012 Women and the Web report. Without government or private sector intervention, research shows that the gender gap in internet access will grow to 350 million fewer women than men online within three years. Women will be cut out of the global technology revolution if this gender divide in technological access and literacy continues.

Increasing girls' STEM education, including through foreign assistance and cultural exchanges, and access to the world’s newest technologies presents an opportunity for the United States and other countries around the world to strengthen economies for future generations. It is a smart, sustainable investment that will promote both prosperity and gender equality.

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