Gender inequality continues in science and technology

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Pervasive barriers restrict women’s participation in science and technology fields even in the wealthiest nations, says a new report. Susan Elan finds out more

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

A 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 USA, Brazil, South Africa, India, Korea and Indonesia.

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 programmes, 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 USA, the number of women in the science and technology workforce is declining.

Key findings of the study include:

  • Opportunity inequality: Women have less access to resources — such as property, financing, technology and education — needed to support active engagement in science. 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 per cent in some countries. However, in physics, computer sciences and engineering, the participation rate of women is less than 30 per cent in most countries.
  • Contributions to decision making: Women have low rates (about 12 per cent) of participation in decision-making in science, in universities and in the corporate sector. South Africa is the exception with a rate of 28 per cent 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 like India try to put supportive policies in place.

'This is an equity issue,' commented 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 found that, even when women enrol in science and technology programmes, as many as 30 per cent 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.

'Women have greater parity in countries with government policies that support childcare, equal pay, flexible work and gender mainstreaming,' Huyer explained.

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. 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 and educational status.

The USA ranked second overall, but came in near the bottom of the countries surveyed in terms of women’s health and consistency of social policies on maternity leave, child care, birth control and abortion.

'If the USA 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,' Huyer observed.

The study was conducted by the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) with the aid of a 2010 Elsevier Foundation grant.

This article first appeared in Elsevier Connect