09.02.2017 - Natural Sciences Sector

Women still a minority in engineering and computer science

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In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared 11 February International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year, the event is being celebrated at UNESCO headquarters with a half-day roundtable on the theme of gender equality in science: myth, reality and future perspectives.

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. Whereas women have achieved parity in life sciences in many countries, they still trail men in engineering and computer sciences. The situation is particularly acute in many high-income countries.

The global figures 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 and technological sophistication, 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%).

In life sciences, women researchers have achieved parity in numerous countries (45–55% of researchers). In some, the balance even tips in their favour. Six out of ten researchers are women in both medical and agricultural sciences in Belarus and New Zealand, for instance. More than two-thirds of researchers in medical sciences are women in El Salvador, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, the Philippines, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Venezuela.

There has been a steady increase in female graduates in agricultural sciences 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 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.

Women consistently underrepresented in engineering

Women are consistently underrepresented in engineering and related fields. 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%) but dominate education (52%) and paramedical occupations (63%).

In Japan and the Republic of Korea, women represent just 5% and 10% of engineers. These two countries have the widest gaps in remuneration between men and women researchers of any member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, namely 29% for Japan and 39% for the Republic of Korea.

In Europe and North America, the number of female graduates in engineering, physics, mathematics and computer science is generally low. Women make up just 19% of engineers in Canada, Germany and the USA and 22% in Finland, for example. There are some bright spots, though: 50% of engineering graduates are women in Cyprus, 38% in Denmark and 36% in the Russian Federation, for instance.

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%).

A sizeable share of women engineers in some developing countries

In a number of developing countries, there is a sizeable proportion of women engineers. At least three out of ten engineers are women, for instance, in Costa Rica, Viet Nam and the United Arab Emirates (31%), Algeria (32%), Mozambique (34%), Tunisia (41%) and Brunei Darussalam (42%). In Malaysia and Oman, the figure is even an astonishing 50% and 53% respectively. Of the 13 sub-Saharan countries reporting data, seven have observed 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. Between 2000 and 2012, the share of women graduates in computer science slipped in Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and USA.

The situation in Latin America and the Caribbean is also of some concern. 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 Denmark, the proportion of female graduates in computer science increased from 15% to 24% between 2000 and 2012 and Germany saw an increase from 10% to 17%. These are still very low levels. Figures are higher in many emerging economies. In Turkey, for instance, the proportion of women graduating in computer science rose from a relatively high 29% to 33% between 2000 and 2012.

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 their daughters’ 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 and the easy access to engineering education resulting from the increase in the number of women’s engineering colleges over the last two decades.

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

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