sheSTEM leaky phenomenon

From Classroom to Career: How The Leaky Pipeline Phenomenon Is Affecting Female STEM Representation in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is increasingly recognizing the pivotal role of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in driving economic growth and technological advancements. The nation’s pursuit of a digitally-driven future is underscored by initiatives like Vision 2021, which aims to transform Bangladesh into a knowledge-based society.

While the nation has made collective strides in expanding access to education, gender disparities prevail in STEM fields. Only 21% of the country’s STEM graduates are female, reflecting a significant gap in female representation in these domains. 

Beyond the imperative of gender parity, female representation in STEM is crucial for fostering innovation, addressing societal challenges, and driving inclusive economic growth. Despite comprising half of the talent pool, women remain significantly underrepresented in STEM fields, particularly in engineering and technology, perpetuating the imbalance in the workforce and stifling diversity of thought and perspective.

Decoding the “Leaky Pipeline” Phenomenon

The leaky pipeline concept illustrates the attrition of female talent across the STEM education and career trajectory. Systemic barriers and cultural biases impede their progression into each education level, leading to disproportionate dropout rates compared to their male counterparts and limited advancement opportunities.

While the primary enrollment rate stands at an impressive 122%, these numbers drop significantly as they transition towards secondary and tertiary education, at 74% and 19% respectively. Shockingly, out of this 19%, only 1.5% venture into engineering, reflecting a loss of female potential in critical STEM disciplines.

Factors contributing to the leaky pipeline include educational barriers, workplace challenges, and societal expectations that discourage women from pursuing STEM careers. These barriers can be categorised into three buckets namely: a) household expectations, b) access to quality education, and c) career aspirations.

Moreover, these challenges are further compounded by pervasive gender stereotypes, workplace safety concerns, and a lack of clarity on career pathways, further exacerbating the leaky pipeline effect.

Reasons Behind Low Female Representation in STEM

At its core, the leaky pipeline underscores systemic barriers and cultural biases that impede the progression of women in STEM fields. The low enrollment rates stifle female STEM representation in Bangladesh, limiting women’s career prospects and hampering the nation’s ability to fully leverage its STEM talent. 

  • Educational Barriers and Gender Disparities in STEM Education: Deep-rooted biases permeate educational materials, with textbooks across various regions inadequately representing female figures. For example, in secondary school English textbooks, females represent a mere 37% in Bangladesh, sending implicit messages about gender roles and career suitability. This disparity discourages young girls from pursuing STEM subjects, perpetuating societal stereotypes. The absence of female role models and mentors further compound these challenges, leaving aspiring young women without guidance and support as they navigate STEM pathways.
  • Workplace Challenges and Cultural Barriers: Upon entering the workforce, female STEM graduates encounter numerous challenges, including limited career opportunities, unequal pay, and workplace environments that are not conducive to professional growth. Family obligations, safety concerns, and societal expectations exacerbate these hurdles, contributing to high attrition rates among women in STEM professions.
  • Absence of Adequate Regulatory Support and Implementation: Insufficient policies and practices within organisations sustain the leaky pipeline phenomenon, driving talented women away from STEM careers. Occupational segregation perpetuates the gender pay gap, funnelling women into lower-paying sectors and positions. Discrimination in hiring exacerbates this trend, limiting women’s access to lucrative employment opportunities. Moreover, the underrepresentation of women in decision-making roles deters the implementation of equitable pay policies, exacerbating wage disparities. Addressing these systemic challenges demands comprehensive strategies that dismantle gender biases, foster inclusive workplaces, and advocate for regulatory frameworks that ensure gender equity in STEM fields.

Successful Initiatives Tackling The Leaky Pipeline in STEM

Globally, transformative initiatives are dismantling barriers and empowering underprivileged girls with access to quality STEM education and mentorship from experienced professionals. By nurturing confidence and sparking interest in STEM disciplines among young girls, these programs play a crucial role in bridging the gender gap in STEM fields.

  • Mentoring Tomorrow’s Leaders: Initiatives such as “STEM Classes for Underprivileged Girls” and mentorship programs play a pivotal role in providing access to quality STEM education and mentorship from seasoned professionals. These programs aim to dismantle systemic barriers and biases in education, empowering girls with the skills and support needed to pursue STEM careers. By fostering interest and confidence among young girls, these initiatives contribute to bridging the gender gap in STEM fields.
  • Global Paradigms for Gender Equality: Drawing inspiration from global examples, Bangladesh can glean valuable insights into effective strategies for promoting gender equality in education. Finland, guided by its Equality Act, mandates the promotion of gender equality across all educational levels, emphasising systematic efforts to combat gender stereotypes and biases. Meanwhile, Sweden has integrated the eradication of gender stereotypes into its national curriculum, pioneering initiatives such as gender-neutral preschools to foster inclusivity in learning environments. These successful models offer actionable strategies for Bangladesh to promote gender equality and inclusivity in its educational system.
  • Spotlight – WePOWER Network: Promoting Inclusion in the Energy Sector: Launched in 2019, the WePOWER Network, anchored by the World Bank’s South Asia Gender and Energy Facility, actively advocates for the inclusion of women in South Asia’s energy sector. The network focuses on five key pillars: STEM education, recruitment, professional development, retention, and policy and institutional change. Through a range of activities including study tours, field visits, workshops, and mentorships, WePOWER has significantly expanded its outreach and impact. In 2021 alone, the network engaged with over 13,400 women through 628 activities, supported by 28 partners from East Asian energy sectors. Looking ahead, WePOWER aims to reach over 19,000 women with over 900 planned activities in 2022, cultivating a more diverse, inclusive, and competent workforce in the traditionally male-dominated energy field.

Future Outlook & Recommendations

While the leaky pipeline phenomenon presents significant challenges for female STEM representation in Bangladesh, concerted efforts and targeted interventions can create a more inclusive STEM ecosystem. Overcoming the leaky pipeline phenomenon requires systemic changes in educational curricula, workplace policies, and societal attitudes.

Mentorship programs, targeted recruitment initiatives and advocacy for gender-inclusive policies are critical for promoting gender diversity in STEM. By investing in the empowerment of women in STEM fields, Bangladesh can unlock its full potential for innovation and economic development, driving sustainable growth and prosperity for all.


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