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Reducing gender inequalities in science, technology, engineering and maths

Written by Rachel Marcus

The past 25 years have seen major progress in the number of girls obtaining primary and secondary-level education.

Today, women make up 35% of higher education students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects globally and more than half of  STEM graduates in some Arab and Latin American countries are women. However, in other regions throughout the world, the number is still often below 20%.

With this uneven progress in mind, on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it is evident there is still much work to do, with women under-represented in physics and earth sciences, computing and engineering.

And although the numbers of women taking STEM courses are slowly increasing, this is not translating into workplace parity where in 2020 women constitute just 12% of professionals in cloud computing, 15% in engineering, and 26% in data and AI.

Thus, despite notable progress, inequality remains, and we need a systemic approach to tackle this challenge.

Why are women and girls so underrepresented and why does this matter?

There are a number of reasons for women’s and girls’ low levels of engagement in STEM:

  • stereotypes within schools and families of boys being better at science and maths or more likely to succeed in STEM-based jobs;
  • perceptions that heavily male-dominated STEM careers are not suitable for women; and
  • continued attitudes in some cultures that investing in education is more important for boys than girls.

These stereotypes have serious consequences. They have shut many of the world’s girls out from the economic opportunities that our increasingly digitised economies generate. Also, they have led to algorithms that discriminate against women job-seekers or medical science underestimating differences in women’s and men’s responsiveness to medical treatment.

Initiatives moving towards gender equality in STEM

Persistent gender inequalities in STEM have long been recognised for example, in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the Education 2030 Framework for Action. National development strategies often highlight boosting women’s and girls’ participation in STEM as key steps to facilitate transitions to high-tech, knowledge-based economies.

In recent years, initiatives such as coding clubs and tech bootcamps promoting girls’ engagement with STEM have proliferated. Little is known about their effectiveness, though some evidence suggests that well-planned, long-term programmes can play an important role in encouraging girls from disadvantaged backgrounds into STEM careers.

Many initiatives are, however, short-term and aim primarily to spark interest rather than build skills. There is a risk that promotion of STEM amongst women and girls may be reduced to short exercises of this kind, with the STEM box ‘ticked’ by a few after-school science clubs.

Countries such as Malaysia, which have achieved gender parity in some scientific disciplines, provide pointers to more systemic approaches. For example, students who score highly in maths and science are automatically placed in STEM subjects. This has supported the country’s national target for 60% of upper secondary students to follow STEM subjects while helping to normalise girls’ participation.

Another promising approach used in Mexico provides secondary school students and their parents with information on the demand for STEM-based jobs and the financial returns studies in technical fields yield. When armed with this information, concerns about suitable careers for women often melt away.

What needs to be done differently to achieve gender parity

Huge barriers remain in the fight for equality in education, with 44% of adolescent girls in the world’s poorest countries having either dropped out or never attended school. 

Furthermore, many children in school are hardly learning: only 6% of grade 8 students in a recent study of low-income countries met minimum standards in maths. And while gender gaps have narrowed, with girls now outperforming boys in literacy and increasingly in science, they lag behind in maths in two-thirds of countries worldwide.

In a world being transformed by globalisation and automation, without the foundational skills in maths and literacy on which more advanced STEM skills depend, a vast proportion of the world’s young people risk being marginalised in the science, technology, engineering, and digital sectors.

To avoid this, substantial investment in improving teaching of foundational skills such as literacy and mathematics, critical thinking and problem-solving, expanding opportunities to develop digital skills,  as well enhancing teachers’ capacity to teach STEM subjects is needed.

There is evidence that in lower- and middle-income countries improving standards and increasing overall levels of participation are strategic ways to build a critical mass of girls and women in STEM.

Including sensitisation to gender in teacher training can also help a new generation of teachers and students avoid perpetuating gender stereotypes while raising teaching standards across the board. Targeted initiatives to inspire a new generation of girls into STEM have more likelihood of success if they can build on these solid foundations.

This blog is part of our ODI at 60 initiative.