Worlds of Education

Understanding and taking action for gender equality in science and technology

published 7 March 2023 updated 8 March 2023
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On February 11, the world marked the International Day of Women and Girls in Science with the aim of raising awareness of the barriers that prevent women from accessing the world of science and technology, as well as promoting their full and equal participation in the sector.

What are these barriers and how do we dismantle them?

As the 67th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women discusses "innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls", let's look at some data on the gender divide in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and reflect on opportunities for action to promote gender equality.

The glass ceiling: a perennial reality in the world of science

According to a Princeton University publication [1], the productivity of women in science has been increasing over the years, although the gender gap is also growing (73% men - 27% women). The statistics vary across regions and areas of knowledge.

In Argentina, productivity and participation is 50-50 for men and women. In spite of these statistics, better than the global average, the masculinization of hierarchical positions, or the so-called "scissors effect", is notorious. For example, in the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), the country's main science organization, in the highest category of Senior Researcher, 75% of the positions are occupied by men. In addition, female researchers who direct scientific projects generally request and receive fewer resources than their male colleagues. Some studies show that when gender is known, the approval of research projects favors men. However, when the gender is not known, the approval rate is equal for male and female researchers.

This is pattern is observed worldwide. According to UNESCO data, only 10.5% of the leadership of scientific and technological organizations are women. The "glass ceiling" in science is still intact.

A clear gender pattern also emerges in higher education. While men account for most students in engineering and information and communication technology, a dynamic and well-paid sector, women are dominant in fields related to education and health care, lower paid professional sectors. Traditional gender roles are perpetuated in universities.

The problem is aggravated by the fact that traditional gender roles for women involve household and care work. Women are expected to take care of both productive and reproductive tasks. This expectation leaves women little time to undertake the training and professional development required for better paid professions and positions.

In the words of Nancy Fraser, "the overwhelming majority of women do not crack any glass ceiling; they are stuck in the basement, they are cleaning up and sweeping up the broken pieces of glass.”

We need to make women in STEM more visible

To understand the structural and historical causes of this gender gap, we cannot underestimate the marked influence of economic and cultural factors, as well as social factors that promote stereotypical gender roles. Both explicit and implicit, these gender roles discourage the participation of girls in STEM, conditioning their self-perception and confidence.

The exclusion of girls, women, and minority groups from STEM education and professions is also reflected in the absence or sidelining of referents of the same gender in certain areas of knowledge, which has a negative impact on peer motivation.

Without a doubt, my professional path was enabled by women who painstakingly paved the way in areas where only men used to tread. Their presence allowed me to visualize a future as a researcher. This vision of myself was particularly influenced by professors and researchers who taught me, as well as by women in my community who promoted growth not in individual terms, but in terms of the needs of our society.

Progress relies on empowering other women along the way, because it is easier for us to see the difficulties of occupying spaces that were previously denied to us. In other words, we must practice sisterhood as a fundamental value also in the spaces of knowledge production.

The impact of the digital revolution

In contemporary capitalism, STEM is both a requirement and a driving force. A new phase, marked by the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, is profoundly transforming society. Digitalization, virtualization, and the automation of economic, political and social processes are signaling a drastic change in humanity's way of life.

This can be seen in the growth of active users on social networks and platforms, or in the penetration of the Internet in daily life, a trend that accelerated after the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, 5.1 billion users spend an average of 6 hours 37 minutes on the Internet. This is just one example of the world's digital behaviors. [2]

In this new phase of digitalization, capitalism amplifies and increases the complexity of the power relations established by patriarchy. The pandemic reconfigured social and economic structures and forms of production and consumption. More than ever before, the gender inequalities we inhabit were painfully visible. Women had to shoulder the lion’s share of the care work maximized by confinements. Digital divides, structured around pre-existing inequalities that limit access to and adoption of technologies, also widened. This is why as the digitalization of the economy accelerates and consolidates, the negative impact on the poorest women deepens. An inclusive approach to the scientific development that defines this era is imperative.

Taking action for change

This new economic phase has created a complex crisis on the economic, social and environmental levels. In this context, universities are all the more important in that they provide the space and time for critical, collective, deep thinking. They give us the opportunity to reflect on how the production and flow of knowledge in our spaces can contribute to the construction of a more egalitarian society that promotes the development of a community based on respect for the environment and that enhances new forms of organization to achieve social justice.

Women’s limited presence in STEM discourages women and girls from developing digital skills, which are fundamental in this new phase. STEM is the basis of the current economic transformation. As long as STEM is in the hands of hegemonic masculinity, it is simply impossible to put an end to patriarchal dominance and change our culture of dispossession and exploitation.

Therefore, we must de-normalize the absence of women on the frontlines of innovation and science. Proposing and promoting policies that enable the full participation of women in these spaces will be fundamental to reverse historical inequalities, in pursuit of a better future. Of course, these struggles must intersect with all other struggles against injustice. Ending patriarchy must be understood as an essential political proposal in order to advance gender equity and social equality.

1. ^

Huang, J., Gates, A. J., Sinatra, R., & Barabási, A. L. (2020). Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(9), 4609-4616.

2. ^

https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2023-global-overview-report. Accessed on 12 February 2023.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.