Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
Women’s under-representation in STEM
Despite the significant gains made by women in higher education in the past decades, there is still a gender gap when it comes to the fields that men and women choose to study (OECD, 2015).
While women now represent 58 % of university graduates in OECD countries, they are significantly under-represented in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Only 20% of computer sciences graduates in 2012 were female, three points lower than in 2000 (OECD, 2015). And a UNESCO study on “Women in Science” (2015) found that the share of female researchers worldwide in 2013 was just 28%.
Women in developing countries also tend to be under-represented in STEM fields, while still facing an overall gap in higher education. In the MENA region for instance, women make up less than half of students in engineering, production and construction (OECD, 2012). There are however a few exceptions, such as Indonesia where women and men choose very similar fields of study (OECD, 2012).
Even women who obtain STEM degrees are significantly less likely than men to pursue a career in those fields. On average, 71% of male graduates from STEM subjects work as professionals in STEM fields, as compared to only 43% of female graduates (OECD, 2015).
Why it matters
The under-representation of women in STEM is a concern both for gender equality and for economic competitiveness.
The STEM Sector offers expanding job potentials and opportunities. For instance, projections suggest that employment in wind and solar energy alone will rise to 8.4 million jobs by 2030. However, today women account for only about 20% of energy sector jobs, most of which are in administration and public relations (Commission on the Status of Women, 2014).
More generally, there is more demand for STEM qualifications on the labour market and STEM jobs tend to be better paid than the typical sectors of female employment. According to the White House (2015), women in STEM jobs in the United States earn 33% more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men.
However, beyond economic arguments, what is at stake is the opportunity for everyone to freely choose a professional orientation in line with their aspirations and capabilities. (OECD, 2015)
Possible causes for women’s under-representation in STEM
From an early age, girls obtain better results than boys in reading. While there is no significant difference between boys and girls in mathematics at primary level, the gap widens in favour of boys in secondary school (OECD, 2015, based on PISA 2012).
Yet this performance gap in the different subjects only partially explains the extent of gender segregation in education. Even girls who excel in mathematics and science are not more likely than their peers to pursue a degree in computer science or engineering. Differences in professional orientations are thus rather due to students’ attitudes, motivations and interests, rather than differences in abilities.
Gender stereotypes in this area develop from an early age both within families and at school. (OECD, 2015; OECD, 2012). Young girls tend to lack role models of influential women leading successful careers in STEM fields. A survey conducted in the United States shows that in depictions of STEM professionals in family films, men outpace women 5 to 1, and when it comes to portrayals of computer scientists and engineers, men outpace women 14 to 1 (White House, 2016).
Other studies furthermore suggest that women’s career “choices” are in fact shaped by the future constraints they are anticipating in terms of family responsibilities and the employment options that will be available to them on the labour market (EU Commission, 2014; OECD, 2012).
What can be done
Enhancing women’s participation in STEM fields will require concerted efforts from policy-makers, parents, academic institutions and corporations in order to:
- Raise girls’ interest in scientific subjects from an early age, both at home and at school;
- Include programmes to raise awareness of gender stereotypes in teacher training curricula and encourage diversity in the teaching profession;
- Strengthen the attractiveness of STEM subjects for girls, for instance by using further pedagogic content tailored to girls’ interests;
- Give prominence to successful female role models in STEM. One example of initiative in this area is the Prize granted every year by the Elsevier Foundation to notable women from STEM fields in developing countries.
Support efforts to retain women in the STEM workforce, notably by changing corporate cultures in STEM workplaces and by promoting more flexible work schemes (OECD 2015; OECD, 2012; White House, 2016).
Coding is one area where initiatives to train and recruit women have flourished in recent years. Girls Who Code, a U.S based programme, pairs instruction in robotics, web design, and mobile development with mentorship and exposure led by female industry leader and entrepreneurs. Since 2012, Girls Who Code has trained over 3,860 girls. Contrary to widespread stereotypes, studies show that codes written by female coders actually tend to receive better ratings by their peers – as long as the gender of the developer is not disclosed (The Guardian, 2016).
Commission on the Status of Women (2014), “Access and participation of women and girls in education, training and science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work,” http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw55/agreed_conclusions/AC_CSW55_E.pdf
European Commission (2014), A New Method to Understand Occupational Gender Segregation in European Labour Markets, http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/files/documents/150119_segregation_report_web_en.pdf
OECD (2015), Trends Shaping Education 2015, Spotlight 7: Gender Equality, http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/Spotlight7-GenderEquality.pdf
OECD (2014), Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, Editions de l’OCDE Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2014-en
OECD (2012), “Gender Equality in Education”, in Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://www.oecd.org/gender/closingthegap.htm
The Guardian (2016), Women considered better coders – but only if they hide their gender, http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/12/women-considered-better-coders-hide-gender-github
White House (2016), STEM Depiction Opportunities: Inspiring a diverse generation of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) innovators, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/imageofstemdepictiondoc_02102016_clean.pdf
UNESCO Institute of Statistics (2015), Women in Science, UIS Factsheet n°34, November 2015, http://www.uis.unesco.org/sciencetechnology/pages/women-in-science-leaky-pipeline-data-viz.aspx?SPSLanguage=EN
AAUW (2010), Why so few ? Women in STEM, www.aauw.org/learn/research/whysofew.cfm
Women in STEM (n.d), website viewed on 18 March 2016, http://www.womeninstem.com/