One of the more frustrating aspects of gender gap in STEM in Bangladesh is lack of female participation in high school level Math Olympiads. Even though in past we have had several promising women such as Nazia Chowdhury and Tamanna Islam Urmi in these competitions, who later went on to succeed in prestigious schools such as MIT, female participants in these Olympiads still remain few and far between. Here are some of my observations of dwindling number of women in different STEM circles:

  1. I have noticed that we have 2–3 female members in Chittagong Math Circle (It is a math club in ctg) who don’t come regularly.
  2. Today, no girl goes in Paradox Physics school where 2–3 girls used to go. (Paradox is a physics club)
  3. Last year, I coordinated a programming workshop in ctg to encourage girls to code. Abed sir and Presidency International School financed it. Bristy Sikder of MIT was the trainer of the workshop. Around 30–40 girls participated in this workshop who didn’t have coding experience. They enjoyed the workshop. Seeing their performance, we didn’t feel that they were coding for the first time. And, I felt, they will continue practicing programming. But I was wrong. After 5 months of the workshop, divisional round of BdOI (Bangladesh Informatics Olympiad) was held. Only 7–8 girls participated there. It seemed like the workshop mission went in vain. In many districts, the organizer didn’t find any female participants.

What causes this apparent lack of spirit?

To understand the lack of participation, I studied the problem by talking to women who ended up dropping out for various reasons. These reasons should be relatable to most Bangladeshi teenager girls, and I present some of my findings:

– There is a belief system among Bangladeshi parents that participating in things outside of our school syllabus is a waste of time. While this belief applies to both girls and boys, in case of boys, there is some room for experimentation. Some parents openly express sentiments along the lines of ‘boys need more freedom to grow’ — so that they get to go out after school, and can choose to use their time productively or unproductively. The same freedom is afforded to girls only under extraordinary circumstances, by extraordinary parents. These practices probably stem from archaic ideas of gender roles — such as: boys need to grow up and become ‘worldly’, whereas girls don’t really need this kind of training, or the world is too dangerous so it is safer if a teenager girl stays at home etc. Either way, parental strictness is usually more severely applied to girls, and extracurricular activities are discouraged. I first heard about these competitions as a high school student. A few of my friend went on to participate without any preparation and even though they enjoyed the experience, they found that the questions posed are very different from our traditional SSC/HSC academic syllabus. As these questions are not going towards helping you ace your school exams directly, it is seen as a waste of time, and is easily crossed off from your day-to-day roster, especially if you happen to belong to the gender whose mobility is already limited.

– Unfortunately, not having a support system at home is a massive disadvantage. If a boy uses his freedom of experimentation productively, this leads to unanimous support from parents. Under such a circumstance, if he initially fails, he still has room to keep trying, because he is lauded for it. But if a girl defies her lack of freedom and experiments by participating in such an Olympiad, she is already breaking rules. On top of that, if she finds herself struggling, it is easier for her to dropout. The usual thought process is:

  1. I can’t solve these problems.
  2. My parents won’t allow me to spend time for Olympiads.
  3. If I spend time for Olympiads, my GPA will fall.

Most successful people also have a strong support system — the effect of family backing has a strong impact on our lives. If parents hold children back simply to conform to tradition (or sometimes out of legitimate concerns for safety) in critical formative years, it sometimes becomes difficult to undo the damages later in life. Which brings us to…

Some problems my seniors have faced:

1) Many girls are forced to choose medical field for higher studies. Even women who are interested in studying engineering are forced to sit for medical admission tests. If a girl gets into medical and engineering school simultaneously, her family, relatives and teachers also try to explain that medical profession is safe and good match for her. It secures her life. If she gets in an engineering university, she has to go abroad for her M.Sc and PhD degree. They won’t get a good husband for her. Her husband and his family won’t let her go abroad. From very early stages, a girl’s life is organized by society and family in hopes of finding a ‘good’ husband (who, ironically, is preferably an engineer). At some point, we need to establish that this approach is truly, truly pathetic.

2) Girls who complete their undergraduate degrees from engineering universities don’t get in laws’ approval to work outside. They are forced to act as house wives and stay at home, while their dreams of obtaining Ph.Ds slowly fade. If this seems like an exaggeration of how life is for a middle class Bengali girl, check out some popular blogs and facebook celebrities in BD actively encouraging women to stay at home and increase home’s beauty (!?!) ‘fuldani hoye ghorer shobha baran’, and how popular these posts are among the general population of BD.

3) I heard about a girl from my friend who is currently studying abroad. She is a Ph.D student. Many of her relatives say to her family: “your daughter is now grown up. You should think about her marriage. She should have been married before going abroad.”

Her parents got upset. So, they want her come back to Bangladesh as soon as possible to get herself married. What a joke! Only she knows that how much time it took to reach there. No one is noticing her intelligence, her abilities here. Not having a husband is seen as some sort of a deficiency, whereas those with husbands that thwart their hopes and dreams can testify what a hindrance having a husband can be. As she isn’t married, she doesn’t fit into society’s model of an ‘acceptable’ women and everyone is allergic to that.

Some families want their sons to marry educated women, but want those girls to stay at home and solely dedicate their lives to breed grandkids for them. These people can make lives quite difficult for these girls. Women need to support each other to break out of systems like this. Make sure none of our families are guilty of such behavior. A little bit of solidarity can help a lot of women succeed. At the same time, women in these situations must do their best not to back down.

So, how can we solve these issues?

I believe that if we encourage girls from class 6, they can realize which subject (Science/Commerce/Arts) they should take in class 9. They should explore their own interests without getting pressurized into more ‘marriageable’ subjects. If a girl pursuing sciences chooses to become a doctor by herself, good for her! But this decision cannot be forced on her by her family.

The problems I have mentioned in this blog are real stories of many girls’ lives. Parents need to stop putting society first and daughters second in their list of priorities and provide all their offspring the support they need to achieve their full potential.

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