It’s Time to Stem the Tide of Women’s Under-Employment

 More girls need to be encouraged to take up STEM.
More girls need to be encouraged to take up STEM.

By Uzma Hoque

In Sri Lanka, efforts need to be made to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for girls to support their employment potential.

Our gender analysis in Sri Lanka ahead of a proposed education project revealed a befuddling situation. At nearly 37 percent, women’s labor force participation is low (with Sri Lanka having the twenty-eighth largest labor force gender gap in the world) even though women are graduating from secondary and tertiary education in large numbers.

The country is also facing a shortage of trained workers in the industrial and services sectors. Worse, skill mismatches are common, with 44 percent of firms highlighting a lack of job-specific competencies and poor preparedness of graduates for twenty-first century skills. Graduates, it seems, lack the skills needed to adapt to a changing economic landscape, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and team work. 

While skill mismatches may be a common challenge throughout Asia, our analysis suggests the culprit, at least in part, in Sri Lanka may be sociocultural – more girls are opting for an arts education even though it offers an employment rate of 32 percent because they want a path to university, and the arts appear to them as the easiest path.

Unfortunately, our gender analysis does not indicate why they are making these choices.

Anecdotal experience suggests that gendered stereotypes of what girls can learn or what is women’s work are holding back young women. Is that the challenge in Sri Lanka? Or are girls pursuing university, and thus the arts, because they have not heard of other options? Are they seeking out a university education because they think it’s the only pathway to an ideal job? Or, are they not aware of needs of the emerging labor market and the various routes to different types of education and skills? 

Are paternalistic labor market regulations penalizing women in ways such as keeping them from night work or part-time work in the service sector? Do the laws governing maternity benefits end up deterring employers from hiring women?

What we could benefit from is a more in-depth research of the causes: Why is women’s labor force participation so low? And why are young women not choosing the fields with a 92 percent employment rate – science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM fields).

   Sri Lanka needs more science, engineering, technology and mathematics for female students.

Based on experience in other projects promoting women into what might be perceived as non-traditional female jobs, we need to give Sri Lankan young women, and most likely their families, more ideas about education options and job prospects. 

Quality, inspiring role models as teachers – and as many of them as possible – should attract more boys as well as girls into the STEM streams of education at both the secondary and tertiary level. The bias toward the non-STEM stream in secondary education is compounded by the shortage of places in STEM courses at the tertiary level. We need to find ways to direct both boys and girls into good-quality relevant technical and vocational training and education, apprenticeships and other tertiary options.   

The inadequate quality of teaching in secondary schools is exacerbated by a shortage of teachers with adequate subject-specific knowledge in STEM streams and an imbalance in teacher deployment between urban and rural schools. We have known this for years. More STEM teachers need to be recruited or deployed equitably across the country’s geography.  

To re-direct youth, we also need to speak to parents and to communities through respectful yet compelling message campaigns, to inform them on the future of work and where the promise of a better life tomorrow for their children can be found. This is where a more nuanced gendered analysis would be useful, to examine the sociocultural context for the choices both young women and men are making to stay in school or the courses they are choosing.

In these campaigns, we can redefine what is a woman’s or a man’s job (rather, we can argue that most jobs are suitable to both sexes). This has worked in Bangladesh, Nepal and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, where women have pursued TVET courses in auto mechanics, woodworking, plumbing and refrigerator assembly.

Career counseling and exhaustive information on labor market needs as well as the tertiary options should supplement the campaigns.

As Lao PDR discovered, incentives can make a difference. We can promote the use of stipends to girls for training in traditional male trades (or trades not considered appropriate for women, such as hotel management) and wage subsidies to enterprises for employing young women.

The future of work is changing, and everyone’s preparation for it must change. But to truly skill women for the future, we must make proposals that address the barriers that women face, and ensure they receive the education and skills they need to find work in the labor market.