06.04.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

Gender parity in science not yet a reality

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A manifesto for women in science was launched in Paris on 24 March 2016, at the close of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award ceremony, which recognized five outstanding scientists and 15 promising researchers. The manifesto draws attention to the need to ensure gender parity in science.

According to the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, women now account for 53% of the world’s bachelor's and master's graduates and 43% of PhDs but just 28% of researchers.. These figures often mask wide intraregional variations. Women make up 52% of researchers in the Philippines and Thailand, for instance, and are close to parity in Malaysia and Viet Nam, yet only one in three researchers is a woman in Indonesia and Singapore. In Japan and the Republic of Korea, two countries characterized by high researcher densities, as few as 15% and 18% of researchers respectively are women.

There are also great disparities from one region to another. In Southeast Europe, for instance, women researchers have obtained parity and, at 44%, are on the verge of doing so in Central Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. In the European Union, on the other hand, just one in three (33%) researchers is a woman, compared to 37% in the Arab world. Women are also better represented in sub-Saharan Africa (30%) than in South Asia (17%).

Women graduates are consistently highly represented in the life sciences, often at over 50%. However, their representation in the other fields is inconsistent. For instance, in North America and much of Europe, few women graduate in physics, mathematics and computer science but, in other regions, the proportion of women may come close to parity in physics and mathematics.

A surge in female graduates in agriculture

Trends in agricultural science tell an interesting story. Around the world, there has been a steady increase in female graduates since 2000. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, numbers of female graduates in agricultural science have been increasing steadily, with eight countries reporting a share of women graduates of 40% or more: Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

The reasons for this surge are unclear, although anecdotal evidence suggests that one explanation may lie in the growing emphasis on national food security and the food industry. Another possible explanation is that women are highly represented in biotechnology. For example, in South Africa, women were underrepresented in engineering (16%) in 2004 and in ‘natural scientific professions’ (16%) in 2006 but made up 52% of employees working in biotechnology-related companies.

At the same time, women are poorly represented in agricultural extension services in the developing world. The UNESCO Science Report suggests that ‘better understanding of women’s incursion into this sector, as well as their career paths, may shed some light on the barriers and opportunities for women in the other sciences.’

Women consistently underrepresented in engineering

Women are consistently underrepresented in engineering. In Israel, for instance, where 28% of senior academic staff are women, they remain marginalized in engineering (14%), physical sciences (11%), mathematics and computer sciences (10%) relative to education (52%) and paramedical occupations (63%).

The numbers of engineers in Europe and North America are generally low: 19% in Canada, Germany and the USA and 22% in Finland, for example, but there are some bright spots: 50% of engineering graduates are women in Cyprus and 38% in Denmark.

In many cases, engineering has lost ground to other sciences, including agriculture. The case of New Zealand is fairly typical. Here, women jumped from representing 39% to 70% of agricultural graduates between 2000 and 2012, continued to dominate health (80–78%) but ceded ground in science (43–39%) and engineering (33–27%).

There are exceptions to the rule. In a number of African, Asian and Arab countries, more than three out of ten engineers are now women. This is the case, for instance, in Viet Nam and the United Arab Emirates (31%), Algeria (32%), Mozambique (34%), Malaysia (39%), Tunisia (41%) and Brunei Darussalam (42%). In Oman, the figure is even an astonishing 53%. Of the 13 sub-Saharan countries reporting data, seven observe substantial increases (more than 5%) in women engineers since 2000: Benin, Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique and Namibia.

Of the seven Arab countries reporting data, four observe a steady percentage or an increase. Why such a high proportion of female engineering students in the Arab world? The case of the United Arab Emirates offers some insights. The government has made it a priority to develop a knowledge economy, having recognized the need for a strong human resource base in science, technology and engineering. With just 1% of the labour force being Emirati, it is also concerned about the low percentage of Emirati citizens employed in key industries. As a result, it has introduced policies promoting the training and employment of Emirati citizens, as well as a greater participation of Emirati women in the labour force. Emirati female engineering students have said that they are attracted to a career in engineering for reasons of financial independence, the high social status associated with this field, the opportunity to engage in creative and challenging projects and the wide range of career opportunities.

Once Arab women scientists and engineers graduate, they may come up against barriers to finding gainful employment, suggests the report. These barriers ‘include a misalignment between university programmes and labour market demand – a phenomenon which also affects men –, a lack of awareness about what a career in their chosen field entails, family bias against working in mixed-gender environments and a lack of female role models.’

Fewer women in computer science

An analysis of computer science shows a steady decrease in female graduates since 2000 that is particularly marked in high-income countries. Exceptions in Europe include Denmark, where female graduates increased from 15% to 24% between 2000 and 2012, and Germany, which saw an increase from 10% to 17%. These are still very low levels.

Over the same period, the share of women graduates slipped in Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and USA.

The situation in Latin America and the Caribbean is worrying: in all countries reporting data, the share of women graduates in computer science has dropped by between 2 and 13 percentage points since 2000.

This should be a wake-up call. Female participation is falling in a field that is expanding globally as its importance for national economies grows, penetrating every aspect of daily life. Could this be a symptom of the phenomenon by which ‘women are the first hired and the first fired?’ In other words, are they being pushed out once a company gains prestige and raises the remuneration of staff, or when companies run into financial difficulties?

There are exceptions. In Turkey, for instance, the proportion of women graduating in computer science rose from a relatively high 29% to 33%.

The Malaysian information technology (IT) sector is made up equally of women and men, with large numbers of women employed as university professors and in the private sector. This is a product of two historical trends: the predominance of women in the Malay electronics industry, the precursor to the IT industry, and the national push to achieve a ‘pan-Malayan’ culture beyond the three ethnic groups of Indian, Chinese and Malay. Government support for the education of all three groups is available on a quota basis and, since few Malay men are interested in IT, this leaves more room for women. Additionally, families tend to be supportive of theirdaughters’ entry into this prestigious and highly remunerated industry, in the interests of upward social mobility.

In India, the substantial increase in women undergraduates in engineering may be indicative of a change in the ‘masculine’ perception of engineering in the country. It is also a product of interest on the part of parents, since their daughters will be assured of employment as the field expands, as well as an advantageous marriage. Other factors include the ‘friendly’ image of engineering in India, compared to computer sciences, and the easy access to engineering education resulting from the increase in the number of women’s engineering colleges over the last two decades.

Getting more women into science isn’t working

Concrete progress is being made in much of the world in increasing the share of women studying scientific disciplines. However, as the case of the EU demonstrates, the gender gap in scientific research remains disproportionately high, making it less likely women will automatically ‘catch up’ to men. There remain persistent gaps and barriers in the scientific research system. This mean that gender equality will not be achieved simply by waiting for the growing mass of female tertiary graduates to make their way through the system.

This has been systematically documented in Europe and the USA, where a decade or so of injecting policy, programming and funding into the system to promote gender equality in research have not produced as much progress as expected. Indeed, in the USA, numbers have remained stagnant and even decreased in some fields over the past decade, whereas there has been little change in the gender balance in the EU for positions of leadership and prestige.

A combination of factors reduces the proportion of women at each stage of a scientific career: the graduate-level environment; the maternal wall/glass ceiling; performance evaluation criteria; the lack of recognition; lack of support for leadership bids; and unconscious gender bias.

Among industrialized countries, the EU and the USA have both adopted strong policies and funding incentives to foster the participation of women in science. Horizon 2020, the EU programme funding research and innovation from 2014 to 2020, treats gender as a cross-cutting issue; it implements a strategy to promote gender equality in research and innovation, including gender balance in research teams, gender balance on expert panels and advisory groups and the integration of gender aspects in the content of research and innovation projects to improve scientific quality and societal relevance.

In the USA, the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunity Act of 1980 mandates equal opportunities for men and women in education, training and employment in scientific and technical fields. As a result, the National Science Foundation supports and undertakes research, data collection and other activities to assess, measure and increase the participation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One of its programmes, ADVANCE, offers fellowships and awards for institutional transformation and leadership to increase the participation of women in research and reward excellence.

A number of low- and middle-income countries have also developed policies in one or more areas to integrate women and gender issues more effectively into science. For instance, the Department of Science and Technology of South Africa convened an advisory body in 2003 to advise it on priorities, key directions and successful strategies for increasing the participation of women in science. This agenda is set in a national context of gender equality and driven by a national ‘gender machinery’ consisting of a group of co-ordinated structures within and beyond government: SET4W is part of the National Advisory Council on Innovation, a national body appointed by the Minister of Science and Technology to advise him or her, as well as the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation. Set4W provides advice on policy issues at the nexus of science, technology, innovation and gender.

Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, see the chapter entitled Is the gender gap narrowing in science and engineering?

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