Study: Women encounter inequality in science & technology fields

Pervasive barriers restrict women’s participation even in the wealthiest nations, a new study finds

Dr. Jeane Rimber Indy of Indonesia is Lecturer in Genetic and Aquaculture at the Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Sciences, Sam Ratulangi University. Here she is carrying out her 2010 TWAS-CONACYT post-doctoral fellowsip at the Centro de Investigaciones Biologicas del Noroeste, in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico.

The presence of women in the fields of science, technology and innovation remains significantly lower than for men, even in some of the world’s wealthiest regions, according to new research.

The study (National Assessments and Benchmarking of Gender, Science, Technology and Innovation) assessed the level of support, opportunities and participation of women in science in the world’s leading knowledge-based economies: the European Union, the United States, Brazil, South Africa, India, Korea and Indonesia.

Sophia Huyer, PhD

Despite efforts to give women greater access to education in science and technology in some countries, the research shows they are still significantly under-represented in many degree programs, especially in engineering, physics and computer science. But even with improved access to science and technology education, women have not increased their numbers in the workforce, the study finds. In fact, in some countries including the US, the number of women in the science and technology workforce is declining.

“This is an equity issue,” said Dr. Sophia Huyer, lead researcher and executive director of Women in Global Science & Technology (WIGSAT). “Women are not having access to professional and income opportunities. In addition, we are missing out on the enormous potential that women represent because they are not participating in how the science and technology sectors are being designed and how they will affect the life of a country.”

The study was conducted by the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and WIGSAT with the aid of a 2010 Elsevier Foundation grant.[note color="#f1f9fc" position="left" width=400 margin=10 align="alignleft"]

Key Findings

Opportunity inequality. Women have less access to resources — such as property, financing, technology and education — needed to support active engagement in science, technology and innovation. As a result, their presence in employment, entrepreneurship and research is lower than men’s.

Variations among scientific disciplines. Female participation in biological, medical and life sciences is very high — above 50 percent in some countries. However, in physics, computer sciences and engineering, the participation rate of women is less than 30 percent in most countries.

Contributions to decision making. Women have low rates (about 12 percent) of participation in decision-making in science, in universities and in the corporate sector. South Africa is the exception with a rate of 28% in 2010.

Health and social status correlations. Women born in countries that accord them low social status and consequently insufficient health care, begin life with disadvantages that are difficult to overcome. These challenges persist as women strive to gain education and build professional lives, even when nations such as India and South Africa try to put supportive policies in place.

Role of education. The results show that access to education is not a solution in and of itself. It’s only one part of what should be a multi-dimensional policymaking approach. There is no simple solution, and special attention must be given to encouraging women and girls in all the STEM fields.

The full study, the Gender Equality and the Knowledge Society Scorecard, key findings, and graphical scorecards, can be found at[/note]

Even when women enroll in science and technology programs, as many as 30 percent drop out due to lack of flexible work hours and child care. Quality health care, financial resources, higher social and economic status, more significant roles in government and politics are also needed to help woman achieve parity in the fields of science, technology and innovation, Dr. Huyer said

“Women have greater parity in countries with government policies that support childcare, equal pay, flexible work and gender mainstreaming,” Dr. Huyer said.

In ranking the seven largest knowledge-based economies for gender equality, the study took into account health, social and economic status, access to resources and opportunity; societal policies such as childcare, equal pay, flexible work hours; and participation in decision making.

The European Union ranked first overall. Brazil took first place for women’s participation in science, technology and innovation due to its progressive social policies that include state-funded tuition. Korea ranked first in health and life expectancy but last in women’s economic status and access to resources.  In that country, even women who are educated are rarely found in public life or in management in the private sector.

India ranked the lowest overall among the countries surveyed, largely as a result of women’s low social, economic and educational status and access to resources.

The US ranked second overall, but came in near the bottom of the countries surveyed in terms of women’s health and the lack of consistent social policies on maternity leave, child care, birth control and abortion. “If the US focused on some of these issues to allow women to participate more effectively, maybe the economy would be in better shape than it is now,” Dr. Huyer said. [note color="#f1f9fc" position="center" width=800 margin=10 align="alignnone"]

Findings by Country

Gender Benchmarking by Country

The European Union as a composite ranks first overall, and first or second in every dimension. This is a remarkable result, considering the wide variation among countries in the EU in terms of social support, GDP, and promotion of science, technology and innovation (STI).

The United States ranks second overall, but fifth in health, agency, social status. Its high status overall comes from its primary ranking in the opportunity and capability and the knowledge society decision-making dimensions – educational levels of women and positions in private sector and science decision-making levels. It comes in second in economic status and access to resources. The US ranks lowest in enabling policies. While it ranks higher in other sectors, this finding indicates that a more favorable policy environment for the US could be an important strategy towards addressing economic competitors in other parts of the world and a strategy for regenerating economic growth after the economic crisis of 2010.

Brazil ranks the highest of the remaining countries, coming in above even the Republic of Korea. It is third overall, first in women’s participation in science, technology and innovation, second in health, and third in social status and access to resources. However its low ranking (fifth) in opportunity and capability and knowledge society decision-making show where improvement needs to be made. Brazil is an example of a country with both a highly enabling policy environment for women, as well as implementation strategies.

Indonesia is fourth overall, but with a third ranking in economic status it has shown steady improvement over the last decade.  Of the countries in this study, Indonesia collects the least sex-disggregated data, with data not available for many of the indicators addressed here. Therefore this ranking could change as more data becomes available.   Its positive enabling policy environment gives it a strong potential for improvement, however current levels of access to resources, agency and social status indicate a need to improve the actual status of women in the country.

South Africa ranks fifth overall but first in agency. It ranks highly (#3) in social status, science, technology and innovation participation, and knowledge society decision-making. This is likely a result of a strong educational system, a policy focus on STI, as well as a quota system implemented in various sectors of society to promote diversity of participation by race and gender. Its high rate of HIV in the population puts it last in health, while it ranks fifth in access to resources.

Republic of Korea – While it ranks first in health, it is last in economic status and second to last overall. This reflects the situation that even though it ranks third in opportunity and capability – that is, in the levels of females in STI education and in access to resources, it sees a low level of female participation in public life in both public and private sectors. This shows the country has failed to adequately support its women to participate actively in its economic success. It also shows the lack of correlation between a country’s GDP and gender equality.

India ranks the lowest overall and in most categories, except in economic status; science, technology and innovation participation; and health. While its enabling policy environment is very positive and has been in place for many years, implementation and funding needs to improve greatly before its women can equally benefit from its innovation advantage. There are definite signs of progress, though. It has achieved universal primary education enrollment for example. However, size of the population mitigates against a rate of change as rapid as a country such as Indonesia or Brazil.

Source: National Assessments and Benchmarking of Gender, Science, Technology and Innovation ( [/note] [divider]

Elsevier Connect Author

Susan Elan

Susan Elan received a Master of Public Health degree this spring from the New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice. Previously, she covered politics and government at daily newspapers in the New York metropolitan area for more than a decade. She is fluent in French.

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13 Archived Comments

Alison Bert October 4, 2012 at 3:01 am

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and welcome to Elsevier Connect. ...<br /><br />Ms. Bandows Koster is CEO of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), which the Elsevier Foundation has partnered with. AWIS's ( press release about this report has some striking stats about the underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields.

Patience C. Bassey October 4, 2012 at 3:40 pm

It's good to know that Elsevier is in support of projects of this nature. The obtained result, I believe if considered, will change certain policies in our Nations concerning women. But while waiting for these policies to change, what can women do? How best can women help themselves? and where should we start from? Especially for those of us in the highly corrupt nations, more of the funding is required to look into how women can be rescued.

Sophia Huyer October 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Hello Patience, and thank you for your comment. You are right that our work is focused on alerting policy makers to understand the importance of implementing policies to support women and girls in S&amp;T and other important sectors. At the level of the individual and non-governmental organization, there are several good models of action locally and nationally -- many women scientists, for example, form national or sub-national networks to support women in science, exchange information and mentor each other. The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) - - works with a structure of regional and national bodies -- you may be interested in joining or starting a national chapter in your country. Other groups have worked with secondary school students to interest both girls and boys in science. Two years ago I was involved in a science day organized by the Academy of Sciences of South Africa, where female scientists and male and female graduate students went to secondary schools to talk to students about science and a career in science and technology.

And lastly, you can make it difficult for your governments to ignore the issue, by working with others in your country to call attention of the media and civil society to the importance of this issue for national development and gender equality.

Please feel free to go to the OWSD or WISAT ( websites and keep in touch -- both organizations provide a network to discuss and move forward on these issues.

S.K.CHAUDHARY October 6, 2012 at 9:04 am

I wish to submit that our state government Haryana (INDIA) has framed a policy to provide reservation to the girl students in the engineering discipline. A total of 20% seats are reserved in all the colleges and in all disciplines.This is one of the steps to minimize the gender biasing in E out of STEM. No doubt lot more is required to be done.

Janet Bandows Koster October 3, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Kudos to Elsevier for funding such a seminal study highlighting the alarming paucity of women in STEM around the world. We hope the data will drive much needed change particularly in government policy and civil society action. As noted in our response, the Association for Women in Science appreciates the facts.

Alison Bert October 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Welcome to Elsevier Connect, S.K. Chaudhary, and thank you very much for your comment. It is indeed interesting to read about what other countries are doing about this issue. I'm curious if the 20% of seats are usually filled or exceeded.

Len Maniace October 12, 2012 at 2:52 am

Nice story Susan. We’re both writing for the same venue, again. All the best.

Susan Elan October 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm

Thank you S.K. Chaudhary for telling us about the policy to encourage women students to study engineering. It is an important step to guarantee spaces for women and one that can be followed by other measures such as stipends and day care for those women with children.

Susan Elan October 12, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Thank you Len. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to tackle such interesting topics. All the best to you in your new post.

Patience C. Bassey November 4, 2012 at 1:54 am

Hello Sophia,I am already a member of OWSDW. I joined since 2010 and joined in the China conference. I am currently working on an assessment tool that will assist in the reduction of the high attrition rate of female students in Computer Science and have carried out a pilot test on the tool as part of fellowship program at University of Cape Town, South Africa. The research can be concluded by carrying out full survey over time and this will require some funding. It might also interest you to know that we are working hard in Nigeria and as an executive memeber of Nigerian Women in Information Technolgy, I can tell you this.

Dr. Geetha Bai October 28, 2012 at 10:06 am

Dear Madam,

In India specially in the state of Tamil Nadu the number of women specialising in computer science field is not low. Every year so many women computer engineers and other computer degree students come out of the colleges. I am working as Principal of a college where 300 women students undergo computer degree. Tamilnadu has emerged as a knowledge hub and more than roughly around 10000 womwn engineers and gradutes in computer science pass out of the Engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu alone and they are employed all over the world.In the last 10 years this change is taking place.If we take the statistics from other states of India we can get a clear picture. I can take up as a project and study the exact number within a few months.I am already completing a Major project for the University Grants Commission New Delhi since I am a doctorate.

Sophia Huyer October 31, 2012 at 2:54 pm

This is good news, S.K. Chaudhary! While our study does not take a position on quotas in any sector, we have found that targetting or reserving spaces for women does make a difference. In terms of the engineering field, more may be required to encourage young women to consider the field in the first place -- I know that in India females tend to go into the health and bio sciences. But this is a good start.

Sophia Huyer October 31, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Dr. Bai - This is an excellent comment -- we know that women are entering IT and computer science in India. However we have not found enough data to get a really good picture of what is happening in the country. And as you point out, many IT graduates from India go to other countries. Another question is -- do those women IT graduates stay in the workforce and do they advance and become senior managers at the same rate as men? Do they earn the same level of wages? All these are interesting questions and I hope you will keep us informed if you study this further.