Vision for women in science

Muhammad Aqeel Awan

The education component of the Global Gender Gap Report 2017 ranks Pakistan at 136 out of the 144 countries that it analyses. Pakistani women face severe restrictions in getting equal opportunities in education, particularly in science subjects, even though they often outperform men. Punjab’s matriculation exams results show that girls perform better than boys in science subjects.

From 2003 to 2015, according to data obtained from the Punjab Bureau of Statistics, girls’ average passing rate in science subjects continues to be consistently and noticeably higher than boys’ average passing rate. In 2003, the passing rate for girls who chose science subjects in their matriculation exams was 75%, while the overall percentage of students – including both boys and girls – who passed with science subjects was 54%. In 2015, for girls, the figure jumped to 83%, while the figure for both sexes combined was still significantly lower, at 72%.

But sadly, we do not see the total number of girls who choose to study science subjects to be higher than boys. Only 40% of the total students who appeared for matriculation exams in science group were girls in 2015. While from 2003 to 2015, we see an increase in the percentage of girls who chose to study science at matriculation level, we also see a rise in the percentage of girls who chose to study general subjects – where home-economics appears to be a popular “choice” for girls. That means that the rise of girls in science at matriculation level is partly due to the overall rise in their enrolments at this level and rarely, if at all, due to better societal attitudes towards the idea of women in science.

Societal attitudes continue to be divided based on which strata of society one chooses to analyse. Little empirical evidence is available in this regard, but anecdotal evidence suggests that lower income conservative households – that are above the poverty line and can afford to send their children to school – predominantly make their female child study in general-group with focus on subjects like home-economics.

Middle income groups are relatively keener to send their girls to science-groups but mostly the purpose is to increase the chances of better marriage proposals. ‘Doctor Bride’ is a concept that continues to hold popular ground in Pakistan. That is why, while 80% of the enrolled students in Pakistan’s medical colleges tend to be women, approximately half of them do not practice or quit within first five years of practice, leaving only 43% of total currently registered doctors to be female, according to data from Pakistan Medical and Dental Council. Resultantly, the profession of medicine continues to be seen as men’s profession. Nursing however, is an area where women do dominate, but that is primarily because the society has gendered nursing as a ‘feminine’ profession.

Another important point here is the quality of education; mere quantity is not enough. Having higher enrolment rates will achieve little improvement in how science subjects are approached and practiced in Pakistan. Much has been written on the poor subject content as well as the poor teaching quality in the country, especially in science subjects. Science teachers are often under-qualified who then force students to rote-memorise the content.

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Similarly, the idea of learning science by doing faces serious limitations in majority of lower income level schools. Many schools do not even have proper equipment to help their students learn by performing the relevant experiments of physics, chemistry or biology. What needs to be further researched and from author’s personal experience and observations, what would show even deeper rooted crookedness of the system is how the exams, especially the practical exams of science subjects are rigged.

In the absence of proper preparation – either due to school’s shortcomings or students’ own irresponsible behavior – many students rely on bribery and “references” in the science-practical’s examination hall. Similar practices are commonly noticeable at university level too. Very rarely, if at all, a student/teacher is caught and punished for these corrupt practices. Such practices might increase the enrollment level and passing percentage, but it is unlikely to help the student, especially women, as well as the country in general, in achieving better standards in its scientific practices.

Furthermore, it is not just the societal attitudes towards women in science and towards the quality of science that need to change, but beyond that, societal attitudes towards women in public spaces – spaces culturally perceived as ‘masculine’ – in general need to change as well. A policy on women in science ought to be underlined by a vision of gender equality in society. Men’s dominance in public spaces leads to the rise and persistence of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ – a concept that Connell, a well-known gender expert introduced, which argues that societal practices tend to be structured in a way that they reinforce men’s dominance over other genders.

A crucial aspect of it is the harassment that women face in educational as well as professional institutions. Institutions either lack policies against harassment or they tend to be structured in a way that inevitably results in victim-blaming i.e., women themselves end up being blamed for being harassed. No credible data is available on this particular aspect, but a closely related data that could help corroborate this point is on annual reported rape cases.

The number of reported rape cases in Punjab, according to the province’s Bureau of Statistics, has increased by an annual average of 6% from 2004 to 2015. Many such cases often go unreported. Studies show a negative correlation between education and harassment cases. But the content of education matters – it ought to nurture the students’ characters by strictly and openly spreading awareness regarding the presence of such crimes and discouraging such cruel practices.

Another component of hegemonic masculinity is triple burdening of working women – they are career women, who have to take care of their families (husband and children) as well as do all the unpaid household chores without being recognized for that. Men do not have to bear such burdens. It means a project for higher female participation in science with better education quality cannot be complete without simultaneous and active engagement in projects that aim to eliminate hegemonic masculinity in Pakistan.

The issues raised in this piece call for re-framing the policy debate on education. Increasingly, enrolment rates have been used as markers for progress, both at provincial and national levels. However, such an approach underestimates the depth and diversity of issues that are rooted in the broader structure of the society that limit women’s participation in science and many other fields. An education policy with the issue of women in science at heart can only be effective if it addresses these structural issues too. The policy should be embedded in a two-way causal approach of eliminating hegemonic masculinity from the society to have more women in science and having more women in science to eliminate hegemonic masculinity in science and society in general.

The writer is Research Assistant at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, Lahore School of Economics.

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