In higher ed, it’s not enough to “fix the numbers” of women in STEM

GenderInSITE-Elsevier Foundation workshop explored the challenges of integrating the gender dimension into STEM higher education

Participants of the GenderInSITE-Elsevier Foundation workshop in Buenos Aires (left to right): Louise Morley, María Bustelo, Eve Langelier, Judith Zubieta, Alice Abreu, Mary Murphy, Liisa Husu, Maxime Forest, Gloria Bonder, Rachel Palmen, Beatriz Macedo, Zelmira May, Lecia Barker and Annalissa Murgia.

Editor’s note: This month, Elsevier Connect is exploring “how science can build a sustainable future.” As a key aspect of sustainability, gender equality is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. When the gender dimension is part of research and higher education, the result can be even more impactful. This multi-pronged approach was the focus of the recent GenderInSITE-Elsevier Foundation workshop in Buenos Aires, organized by Prof. Gloria Bonder, GenderInSITE Regional Focal Point for Latin America and the Caribbean and UNESCO Regional Chair on Women, Science & Technology. Here, Dr. Bonder and her colleague Erin Johnson write about the event and the ideas and actions that came out of it.

Update: We have added a Spanish translation of this story below.

Ever since sex-disaggregated statistics and gender indicators on science and technology first became available, the issue of unequal participation by women and men in STEM fields has been impossible to ignore.

In most countries, women are underrepresented in large numbers in some fields – particularly in mathematics, physics, informatics and computer science – and across all disciplines at leadership levels.

In recent years, however, as it has become clear that gendered representations, norms and values are embedded in the production of research itself, another imperative has arisen – it is not enough to “fix the numbers” of women in STEM; we must transform the knowledge itself by integrating a gender dimension into research content, curricula and teaching practices. And neither of these can be substantively changed if the prevailing culture of academic institutions is resistant to these efforts. The institutions must themselves be viewed under a gender lens.

This multi-pronged approach was the focus of our workshop April 21 and 22: “Integration of gender perspectives in science and technology in higher education: Contributions to the advancement of the SDGs.” Fourteen distinguished researchers from Latin America, Europe and North America shared research findings and lessons learned from existing initiatives to mainstream gender equality in academic institutions, further analyzing how this process might have an impact on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The participants acknowledged that much progress has been made since the early 1990s in terms of establishing gender equality initiatives and policy instruments in their regions. Maxime Forest (Sciences Po, France) pointed out that more than 1,500 universities and research institutions in Europe are carrying out gender equality plans or strategies – and increasingly, national governments are passing regulation to enforce the implementation of such plans. In Sweden, for example, gender mainstreaming was adopted as a policy principle in 1994; in 2016, the government issued an ordinance to all universities to produce a formal gender mainstreaming plan for 2017-19 with annual follow-up. And in the United Kingdom and Ireland alone, nearly 500 different equality strategies are being carried out at 150 universities.

Yet, the workshop concluded, interpretation and implementation of these plans varies widely from institution to institution, depending on the socioeconomic context as well the particular higher education systems and regulations. Those plans often fail to receive true backing from academic decision makers. Few financial or personnel resources are made available to support their implementation, and even fewer for evaluation and monitoring to determine their effectiveness. The task often falls to one or a handful of individuals rather than being mainstreamed throughout the institution; and the scope of their assignment is frequently left open to interpretation, which often is limited to increasing numbers of women.

Even when strong gender equality plans are in place, major obstacles remain. Prominent among these is the male-dominated institutional culture that participants agreed drives many women out of STEM careers. Senior leadership in science is quite simply becoming unattractive to many women who don’t wish to be treated as “the other” in their workplace, or be forced to conform to a male-oriented code of behavior. Louise Morley (Sussex University, UK) said “Gendered division of labor, exclusionary networks and hostile cultures are important factors in keeping women away,” Explicit and implicit gender biases and micro-discriminations are embedded within the content, norms and everyday practices of academic institutions, preventing sustainable structural change even when the policy structure is there.

It is clear that university leaders – as well as the academic community at large – need a better understanding of how gender equality can improve the quality, relevance and creativity of knowledge creation, as well as better incentives to prioritize gender mainstreaming in their institutions. The gathered experts proposed several solutions to further this aim. One immediate suggestion was to incorporate gender equality in the ranking of universities, which carry much esteem in the academic world and influence external funding. If gender equality factored into the evaluation of universities’ rankings, it was suggested, they would likely dedicate more attention and resources to implementing their gender equality plans effectively. Another critical need raised was for greater scrutiny of the theoretical conceptions and analysis of gender itself, as well as the assumptions and values inherent in the policy mechanisms used to address it.

One of the main outcomes of the workshop is that we need to move beyond adding more women to traditional and gender-biased STEM education to addressing bigger challenges. It is critical to create a new interdisciplinary learning ecology based in an intersectional and intercultural gender approach to STEM, and responsive to the needs for sustainable development in each society.

There is much more that university leaders can do, and the workshop participants will work on a collective “manifesto for change” that will be circulated when completed. A full report including conclusions and recommendations from the workshop will be available on the GenderInSITE English- and Spanish-language websites, as well as the website of the UNESCO Chair in the Latin America region.

How science can build a sustainable future

This month, we are exploring “how science can build a sustainable future.”  At Elsevier, we support sustainability science throughout our business, bringing sustainability research to a wider audience, for example, and providing information and analytics that shed light on sustainability research to help inform policy.


Written by

Gloria Bonder, PhD

Written by

Gloria Bonder, PhD

Dr. Gloria Bonder is Director of the Gender, Society and Policies Department at the Latin American Postgraduate Institute of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Buenos Aires. Since 2001, she has coordinated the UNESCO Regional Chair on Women, Science and Technology in Latin America, the E-learning Master's Program on Gender, Society and Public Policies (PRIGEPP), the Global Network of UNESCO Chairs on Gender, and the LAC focal point of GenderInSITE. For more than two decades, Prof. Bonder has developed several research projects on gender issues in technology and science, education, communication and youth, and has published books and articles nationally and internationally.
Written by

Erin Johnson

Written by

Erin Johnson

Erin Johnson is the Communications and Administrative Officer at GenderInSITE, an initiative to promote the role of women in science, innovation, technology and engineering, and to demonstrate how applying a gender lens to SITE can provide deeper insights, more effective programs and more sustainable outcomes in the context of development. She previously worked on international science policy and science diplomacy at the US Department of State and wrote about the intersection of science and policy, particularly in the context of the developing world, as the Editor and Community Manager of She holds a master's degree in international affairs from the New School in New York City with a concentration in international development, and a bachelor's degree in microbiology from UCLA.


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