Women in Science: the Persisting Gap

Women in Science: the Persisting Gap


[This post has been written by Azucena Bardají, researcher at ISGlobal, and Clara Menéndez and Anna Lucas, director and coordinator, respectively, of the Maternal, Child and Reproductive Health Initiative at ISGlobal. February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science]

Less than one third of researchers worldwide are women

Over the last decades, women have gained broad access to higher education; they account for a slightly higher percentage (53%) than men in bachelor’s degree and postgraduate studies, according to the UNESCO. But something happens from then on, with a clear decline in the percentage of women that embark in a PhD (44%) and an even smaller percentage of women that follow a scientific career as researchers (29%).

If these numbers are alarming, it is even more worrying to see that the pattern is similar to that observed in 2008, indicating that the rhythm at which women initiate and successfully pursue a scientific career has stalled over the last decade.

This is not a perception: data indicate that women continue to be underrepresented in science, technology and development at the global level (less than one third of researchers worldwide are women; 32% in North America and Western Europe). Moreover, women tend to have a limited access to research funding and continue to be a minority among university professors and leaders of top research institutions, and therefore in strategy and decision making processes.  

Currently, out of 80 universities, only 9 have female deans

As an example, in Spain, women have been admitted to the university under equal conditions since 1910, but this is not reflected in the top positions in university centres. Since 1982, when the first woman was elected as rector of the National University of distance learning, only 22 women have been university deans in Spain. Currently, out of 80 universities, only 9 (11%) have female deans. 

Why does this situation persist? One needs to see, beyond the numbers, the obstacles that keep women from choosing and pursuing a scientific career under equal terms, from education paths and stereotypes when choosing their field, the prejudices and lack of references in a highly masculine sector, to the family burden or selection and promotion biases regarding leadership positions, which are often not merit-based.

In addition, society’s negative attitudes and stereotypes regarding women’s and girls’ capacities make them ill-prepared for the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will generate a large demand for digital jobs at the expense of other types of jobs that will disappear. In almost all countries, girls are behind boys in terms of digital knowledge; furthermore, it is less likely that they choose careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). This can place future generations in a particularly vulnerable situation whereby they are excluded from the labour market, unless serious measures are taken to close the digital and technological gap. This is therefore a central issue in any strategy aiming at reducing gender inequality

Reducing the gender inequality gap requires urgent action and the implementation of effective measures

Beyond data, studies, and the declaration of international days by the United Nations, reducing the gender inequality gap requires urgent action and the implementation of effective measures – barely visible for the moment – by a variety of actors- from governments to the private sector- in order to promote digital literacy and the continuous training of staff in academic and research centres, establish quota in scientific careers and science leadership and management positions (with equal merit, favour the underrepresented gender), promote access to job opportunities, ensure gender equality in research funding and evaluation mechanisms, and establish initiatives with the education community and other civil society organisations to give visibility to female role models and stimulate scientific vocations among girls and adolescents – and, hopefully, future scientists.

More information

Infographic: 7 Facts Illustrating the Discrimination Against Women in Science

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