from Women and Foreign Policy Program

Investing in Girls’ STEM Education in Developing Countries

Students at a government school work on individual laptops, in Ahmedabad, India, on July 26, 2018. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

The education gender gap costs the world between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in human capital. U.S. aid programs need to equip girls and women to participate in the modern digital economy.

August 07, 2019

Students at a government school work on individual laptops, in Ahmedabad, India, on July 26, 2018. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
Policy Innovation Memorandum
Policy Innovation Memoranda target critical global problems where new, creative thinking is needed.

As part of its global commitment to women’s economic empowerment the United States should increase its investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for girls in the developing world. Women are vastly underrepresented in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector in developing countries due to the lack of access to STEM training. As innovation, automation, and new technologies reshape the global nature of work, girls who learn the skills needed to participate in the digital economy will improve their own financial agency and self-sufficiency. They will also help nations grow economically, ultimately reducing reliance on U.S. foreign assistance.

Meighan Stone
Meighan Stone

Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy

Rachel B. Vogelstein
Rachel Vogelstein

Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program

The U.S. government should take four steps to improve STEM opportunities for girls in the developing world:  invest an additional $100 million in girls’ STEM education in fiscal year (FY) 2020; improve gender-disaggregated data monitoring; leverage public-private partnerships to translate education into STEM employment; and encourage other nations to invest in girls’ STEM education, including at the upcoming Group of Seven (G7) summit.

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An increased focus on girls’ STEM education and training aligns with and expands the Donald J. Trump administration’s support for women’s economic empowerment and entrepreneurship globally. In the last two years, the Trump administration launched both the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP), which aims to empower fifty million women in developing countries by 2025, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s $1 billion 2X Women’s Initiative, which spurs economic growth by providing capital to women-owned businesses in low-income countries.

Workforce of the Future: STEM Skills Required

New technologies are dramatically transforming work and the global economy. This new age of automation creates both new opportunities and obstacles for workers, businesses, and governments. Many children starting primary school this year will eventually work in jobs that do not currently exist. Millions of employees in low- and lower-middle-income countries work in occupations that were unimaginable just decades ago. Today, four million Indians earn a living as mobile application developers, and more than 40 percent [PDF] of workers using computers in Bolivia and Kenya perform tasks that require advanced programming capability. The demand for critical thinking and STEM skills already outpaces education and training available across the developing world. Globally, low-skill workers will increasingly be expected to use technology to achieve greater productivity, while high-skill workers will use STEM skills to invent new products and services.

This new world presents unique challenges for women ready to join the workforce. The rise of new technologies may exacerbate existing gender gaps in developing countries. Women are overrepresented in occupations that are most likely to become automated: a 2016 report by the International Labor Organization found that Southeast Asian workers in the garment manufacturing industry—nearly 70 percent of whom are women—were at high risk of being displaced by machines.

Women are already at a disadvantage in terms of technology. Throughout the developing world, most women lack the technical skills and knowledge necessary to compete in a digital economy. In the world’s least-developed countries, only one out of seven women [PDF] uses the internet, compared to one out of five men. In low- and middle-income countries, 184 million fewer women than men own cell phones. Cost, cultural norms, and family concerns about online harassment inhibit women from using new technologies. Consequently, women do not have the same opportunities as men to develop the digital literacy required by a growing number of jobs—perpetuating a cycle of poverty and undermining U.S. interests in global economic growth.

Mind the (Gender) Gap: STEM Education

Girls disappear from STEM studies as they progress through high school, assuming they even have access to secondary education. Worldwide, women account for just 35 percent of students enrolled in higher-education STEM subjects and less than 30 percent of students pursuing careers in ICT fields. By the end of tertiary education, women make up only 3 percent of ICT graduates globally.

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The failure of educational systems in developing countries to reach and retain girls—particularly at the secondary level, where students acquire foundational digital skills—results in a dearth of women in STEM jobs. Already, the economic cost of gaps in girls’ education in developing countries is staggering: a World Bank report estimates that the total loss in human capital due to the low number of women attaining secondary education is between $15 trillion and $30 trillion globally. Women in developing economies who finish secondary school are less likely to marry and have children early and are more likely to make better and more informed decisions about their households and have healthy children who, in turn, are educated.

Already, the economic cost of gaps in girls’ education in developing countries is staggering.

Even where girls can access STEM education, most developing countries lack the “on-ramps” that help girls transition from the formal education system into the STEM workforce. This omission not only hinders women’s economic agency and self-sufficiency but also results in a loss in earning power that could otherwise boost national growth and reduce poverty. To ensure that developing countries realize the full potential of their workforce, aid programs need to equip girls and women with the skills to participate in the modern digital economy.


Building on the W-GDP Initiative, as well as the Trump administration’s new U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) education policy and the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act, the United States should take the following steps to stimulate economic growth by increasing girls’ STEM education:

Invest $100 million in girls’ STEM education in FY 2020. Congress should work to expand U.S. support for girls’ STEM education, which is a highly cost-effective investment: closing the gender gap in digital fluency can open higher-paying work opportunities for women and generate growth across the economy. Girls who learn the skills needed to participate in the digital economy will improve their own financial agency and self-sufficiency and contribute to the economic growth of entire nations. Helping women shift from aid recipients to trained workers with financial agency will also ultimately reduce the developing world’s reliance on U.S. foreign assistance, another priority of the Trump administration. An expenditure of $100 million on girls’ STEM education in FY 2020 would represent less than 10 percent of the $1.035 billion spent on international basic and higher education in FY 2019, and would generate overall cost savings by increasing women’s economic participation in the long term. As part of this investment in a modern and self-sufficient workforce, USAID should also amplify support for innovative approaches, building on the Trump administration’s 2018 WomenConnect Challenge, which aims to increase women’s access to digital technology.

Track U.S. government funding and programs for girls’ STEM education. USAID does not comprehensively monitor funding or programs to advance girls’ STEM education and training. Without such tracking of spending, projects, and outcomes, it is difficult to identify opportunities for more cost-effective or innovative investments. Cataloguing the overall programmatic portfolio would improve analysis and identify both promising projects—such as the successful U.S. government–supported El Maadi STEM School for Girls in Egypt, which is now being expanded nationwide—and laggards to be cut. This low-cost, high-impact shift would help the U.S. government better invest in girls’ self-sufficiency and promote growth.

Leverage public-private partnerships to promote transitions from school to work. To support women’s entry into STEM jobs and boost growth, the Trump administration should build public-private partnerships between technology companies, governments of developing countries, and nonprofit organizations to ensure that girls’ educational programs prepare them for the digital workforce. Programs should take advantage of private-sector expertise in design, training, and recruitment. Laboratoria, a public-private initiative that provides targeted skills training to young women in Latin America, is an example of a successful model worth replicating and bringing to scale.

Gaps in gender-disaggregated data inhibit the creation of effective training programs for girls and women.

Improve gender-disaggregated data and analysis globally. Gaps in gender-disaggregated data inhibit the creation of effective training programs for girls and women. In line with USAID’s Education Policy, the Trump administration should expand the evidence base on what works in quality STEM education—including for girls—by ensuring that funded projects conduct baseline studies and collect gender-disaggregated data. Additionally, the Trump administration should partner with international institutions and nongovernmental organizations—including Data2x, the International Labor Organization, and the World Bank—to improve data collection on the global ICT labor force and promote cost-effective approaches.

Encourage other nations to co-invest. The United States need not shoulder the global burden of investment in girls’ STEM education alone. The upcoming 2019 G7 meeting, chaired by the French government, offers a powerful opportunity for the United States to encourage funding from other nations. Building on the Charlevoix Declaration on Quality Education for Girls, Adolescent Girls and Women in Developing Countries [PDF] from the 2018 G7 summit, which committed to overcoming the gender digital divide and accelerating women’s participation in the digital economy, France will promote gender equality and women’s economic empowerment during its G7 presidency. The United States should work with France and demonstrate leadership by encouraging other G7 donors to use the summit communique to make similar and substantial commitments to girls’ STEM education. Additionally, as with the Trump administration’s successful championing of the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative at the 2017 Group of 20 (G20) summit in Germany, the United States should use the 2020 G20 meeting in Saudi Arabia to marshal multilateral investments in girls’ STEM training.

Penny-Wise, Pound Foolish? The Economic Case for Promoting Girls’ STEM Education

Critics may argue that increased spending on girls’ STEM education is a luxury the U.S. government cannot afford at a time of tightening budgets, or that spending for basic education systems [PDF], which are still lacking, should take priority. But integrating STEM training into secondary education, improving girls’ access to STEM education, and investing in “on-ramps” that help girls transition from the formal education system into the STEM workforce is a smart long-term investment. Training girls today to become part of the modern digital workforce tomorrow will help grow entire economies and advance U.S. interests in global prosperity, poverty reduction, and economic growth. An additional $100 million in funding for FY 2020 strikes the balance of a measured investment in a rapidly changing workforce without displacing traditional education aid approaches.

It will take 217 years to close the economic gap between men and women if current trends persist.

Inaction will exact a toll. A 2017 World Economic Forum report argues that it will take 217 years [PDF] to close the economic gap between men and women if current trends persist. With technological change accelerating, failure to invest in girls’ STEM education and enfranchise women in the digital revolution will forfeit the economic potential of half the population. In India alone, the economy could grow by an additional 60 percent—or $2.9 trillion—by 2025 if women participated in the workforce to the same extent as men. To reduce poverty and advance U.S. interests in global economic growth, Washington should work with governments, multilateral organizations, and the private sector to boost cost-effective investment in STEM education for women and girls.

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