Overcoming gender barriers in science: Facts and figures

Access to science education can help girls participate in research and innovation Copyright: Flickr/ Oxfam International

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Developing countries need more women scientists. Jeanne Therese H. Andres charts the obstacles and how to overcome them.

Most of the world’s poor — over 1 billion people — are women and children. And women make up a large portion of any nation’s human resources, providing a rich potential supply of talented scientists and innovators. [1]

Science’s role in improving quality of life is now more prominent than ever. And according to the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), women’s active inclusion and participation in science is crucial in countries’ efforts to alleviate poverty. [1] Encouraging women to take part in science would allow any country to maximise its valuable human assets, empower its women, and improve its economic prospects.

But in many parts of the world, it is still rare to find women working in scientific fields — and female researchers, those that continue to actively practise science after obtaining higher education degrees, remain under-represented. [2]

Figure 1: Women as a share of total science researchers in 2007 or latest available year. Calculations based on head counts (HC) of full-time equivalents (FTEs). [2]

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has estimated that of the world’s total science researchers, only 27 per cent are women. [3]

In Africa, Guinea has the lowest percentage of female science researchers (5.8 per cent), and also the lowest percentage out of all 118 countries included in the study (see Figure 2). Only two African countries — Lesotho (55.7 per cent) and Cape Verde (52.3 per cent) — have achieved gender parity for science researchers. [2]

In Asia and the Pacific, Myanmar has the highest proportion of female researchers anywhere in the world (85.5 per cent) (see Figure 2). But only five other countries in the region — Georgia (52.7 per cent), Azerbaijan (52 per cent), the Philippines (52 per cent), Kazakhstan (51.3 per cent), and Thailand (50.3 per cent) — have achieved gender parity. Women scientists are most poorly represented in Japan (13 per cent), Bangladesh (14 per cent), India (14.8 per cent), Republic of Korea (14.9 per cent), and Nepal (15 per cent). [2, 3]

Figure 2: Female researchers as a percentage of total researchers in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, 2007 or latest available year [2]

Measuring the gender gap

Compiling statistics on women in science that can be compared between countries is laborious and difficult. Although the UIS has comparable data for 86 nations, figures are still missing for half of the world’s countries including major research hubs such as Australia, Canada, China, the UK, and the US (see Figure 1). [1, 4] In spite of these gaps, it remains the best available source of such data.

Some of the countries not included in the UIS database do compile national statistics on gender disparities in science, often in great detail. But these are calculated based on ‘full-time equivalents’ (FTEs) instead of ‘headcounts’ (HC), so they count hours worked rather than people working. This makes them incomparable with the data gathered by UIS and other global bodies. [4]

That is not the only reason for the dearth of gender data. National gender-specific statistics for tertiary education and science researchers are often lacking in the developing world. [4] That is understandable. If a country is struggling to deal with pressing concerns like poverty or health crises, it surely can’t be expected to prioritise collecting gender data.

But this inconsistent availability of gender data in science at national levels does point towards a deeper, underlying factor: policymakers simply don’t realise the potential significance of the gender gap in science and technology. And this lack of awareness becomes a feedback loop as gender policies remain low priority, which in turn means statistics are not collected, bolstering the lack of awareness. [1]


Women pursuing advanced science degrees need more government support

Flickr/ niyam bhushan

Helping countries collect, analyse and disseminate statistics on science, technology and gender breaks this vicious cycle and puts gender issues in science on policymakers’ agendas. UNESCO has called on the international community to help countries gather these data and put in place strategies for increasing women’s participation in science and technology. Reliable evidence can inform policy by helping policymakers identify areas to target for intervention. [1]

An invisible web

Across the world, governments are becoming more aware of the need to support women throughout their science studies at the tertiary level — including vocational and technical training, undergraduate education and graduate studies. [1]

Why, then, are many women in the developing world still participating less in science?

Identifying the root causes of women’s poor participation in science is hardly straightforward. As with any complex issue there is no clear Achilles’ heel, no single underlying reason that explains it. Rather, these barriers have been likened to an invisible web with intertwined strands representing cultural, societal, personal, institutional, political, and economic obstacles. [5]

Yet women’s under-representation in science can be strongly attributed to their weak participation in higher education, and specifically in the most advanced degree levels. [3]

In most countries, men predominate in science and engineering (S&E) across all levels of higher education and in research positions (see Figure 3). Looking beyond just science, at all fields of study combined, the trend is different, with most countries only showing male predominance at PhD level and above, and a larger proportion of countries achieving gender parity. [3, 1]

Figure 3: Percentage of countries with gender parity or disparities by level of education, 2003 [3, 4]

The obstacles certainly begin early on. In the developing world, poverty is the foremost cause of unequal access to secondary education. In turn this restricts young girls’ access to a university degree in any field.

Women and girls still lag behind men and boys in access to basic education in general, and to science learning in particular. [1, 6] Out of all illiterate adults worldwide, two thirds are women. [6] Access to consistent, long-term education — especially in science — remains elusive for many girls. [1, 6]

Despite the undoubted fact that secondary education empowers women and helps lift their families out of poverty, twice as many of the poorest girls miss out on secondary school, compared to their better off counterparts. [7] This perpetuates the cycle.

And then there are cultural obstacles. Societies have long imposed unhelpful gender stereotypes, differentiating between what is expected of boys and girls. Boys get education and training because they are expected to provide a family’s income and future economic stability. Girls, on the other hand, are brought up to become good wives, mothers and housekeepers.

To this day, in some cultures, misconceptions about girls’ capabilities in science abound. Girls who are lucky enough to be in primary and secondary education are often discouraged from pursuing technical or maths-based fields, being steered by well-meaning parents and advisers towards non-science fields instead.

These traditional definitions of women’s roles in society, and false myths of girls’ intrinsic unsuitability for science, have been fostered and passed down through generations. While they may be easy to disprove scientifically, they will not be so easy or quick to remove from entrenched cultural attitudes.

Yet, here too, education can make a difference. Educating a girl, even at the primary level, can transform her into an economic contributor. [6] And it is not difficult to imagine the vast socioeconomic potential offered by giving more girls access to science education at still higher levels, so they eventually participate in science research and innovation.

Career barriers

Once a woman scientist does manage to hurdle these obstacles and successfully finishes her first or advanced degree, new barriers emerge.

Since this phase in a scientist’s career often coincides with a woman’s childbearing years, it introduces a difficult dilemma between conforming to work expectations in order to advance in her career (competing for a tenure-track position, for example), and focusing on long-term personal relationships and family responsibilities.

School children

Girls still lag behind boys in access to science education.

Flickr/ mckaysavage

Another potential obstacle is gender discrimination in various aspects of science careers and employment, such as job interviews, peer review processes in publications, grant award and funding selection, competition for fellowships and job promotions. Whether such discrimination exists and how far it goes has been hotly debated in recent years, mostly in the West. [5, 8, 9, 10]

But what is not challenged is that women in science generally receive less pay for equal work, compared with their equally-qualified male colleagues. As they are also less likely to be promoted, women are consistently found in the lower tiers of the scientific career ladder. [1]

Career review processes tend to overlook gendered productivity or publication patterns. For instance, research suggests that generally, women write more comprehensive and concise journal papers than their male counterparts — resulting in fewer, but more widely-cited, publications. [1]

The low numbers of women in senior research positions could be explained by a wide range of factors, including the struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance, gendered criteria for performance measurement and promotion, and inflexible policies in research institutions [1]

Clearly, if an academic institution’s career progression system is better suited to men — involving long work hours, limited family responsibility outside work, emphasis on early accomplishments, and being identified as a scientist to the exclusion of other roles — then it is only to be expected that women will not advance as quickly as their male colleagues. [1]

A role for institutions

Women remain under-represented in the sciences even in the affluent West, where poverty and disparities in education are less of a barrier. The reasons for this are under intense debate.

A study published in 2010 by The American Association of University Women (AAUW) suggested that gender discrimination in science still existed at the institutional level, albeit in more subtle forms than it had been in the past. [13] Critics argued that, rather than being ‘institutionally-caused’, underrepresentation is mainly down to personal lifestyle choices, career preferences, and other factors linked to raising a family. [8]

But institutional reforms can make a difference. A study recently conducted at the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reviewed gender equality in the schools of engineering and science, and reported remarkable progress in narrowing the gender gap in the School of Engineering. [14]

Girls experiment

Hands-on science teaching can help encourage girls into science careers.

Flickr/ CIMMYT

It also revealed women faculty’s overwhelmingly positive view of MIT’s gender equality policies in the School of Science. [14] MIT is one of the institutions leading the way towards greater gender parity in the United States, and has introduced family-friendly changes on campus, such as having an onsite day care facility for children of faculty members. [5] Such measures could form a blueprint for other academic institutions to follow.

Starting with schooling

Many resource-intensive solutions to gender disparities are simply beyond the reach of science institutions in the developing world. But the call for action to narrow the gender gap in science has grown stronger, especially with gender equality being named by the United Nations as one of its eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. [7] And some developing countries have taken note.

To encourage young women in Bangladesh to pursue secondary education, the Female Secondary School Stipend programme — a donor-funded government initiative — has given tuition and maintenance money directly to girls and their families when they enrolled in secondary school and delayed getting married until after they turned 18. Where the programme has been implemented, female secondary school enrolment figures rose from 33 per cent in 1991 to 56 per cent in 2005. [7]

In Kerala, India, successful schemes have given families money for each school year that a young girl completes. [6] In 2001, overall literacy rate had soared to 91 per cent (the highest in India) from only 47 per cent in 1951, with a literacy gap between girls and boys of only 6.3 per cent. [11]

In Brazil, poor families can receive cash in exchange for keeping their children (between 6 and 15 years old) in school and bringing them to regular health check-ups. [6, 12]

In higher science education, private initiatives — such as Schlumberger Foundation’s Faculty for the Future programme, L’Oréal-UNESCO’s For Women in Science programme, and Elsevier Foundation’s New Scholars program — actively support women to do advanced scientific research.

Beyond basic schooling

Beyond education, there is still a lot that can, and should, be done. The first step is to ask what women in science need most in the developing world, and how interventions can be most effective.

The UIS has highlighted three pressing needs that serve as a useful starting point. [1] They are to increase women’s participation in science and research careers throughout the world; to spread public awareness on science and gender issues; and to collect more gender statistics so as to promote thorough research.

It is essential not just that more girls stay in school, but also that they are taught science well, encouraged into science careers, and helped to stay in them.

South African educators have recently introduced inquiry-based science education in the hope that hands-on, observational, experimental science will attract more girls. [15] This means adjusting the way science is taught in primary schools, and recognising that the way knowledge is delivered should suit the learning styles of both boys and girls.

Teaching should also address the common misconceptions about science, for example that science is for boys, and that girls don’t have the brain power it takes.

Mentoring and guiding aspiring researchers is another powerful way to inspire women to stay in science. Women may at times be tempted to abandon their field because of self-doubt or to avoid competing with male co-workers who don’t face the same obstacles. Role models and mentors can provide objective counsel, and help a young woman scientist with her career choices.

Building networks and support systems can also help women scientists find and maintain a healthy and productive work-life balance. Through these they can discover how others have tackled the challenges, perhaps offering options or solutions they had not considered.

Providing better economic incentives — by narrowing or eliminating the pay gap between equally-skilled male and female scientists — may also attract more women into science, or convince more to stay. Pay and promotion policies should consider gendered productivity patterns, and move away from traditional work assessments that suit men best.

Getting more women scientists into top-level, decision-making roles in academia, government, and industry can make a big difference to young women scientists if those senior women push policies that promote gender equality. They also offer aspiring researchers positive role models.

Challenging myths, gathering statistics

To meet the second need — to spread public awareness — a socio-cultural revolution must begin at the household level working its way up the community network. It must change gender stereotypes, persuading people to abandon myths and misconceptions that restrict girls and women from fully participating in science.

This is a daunting prospect, and can only be achieved by consistent awareness campaigns that are sustained over years. But this cultural change will become more possible with each educated girl and woman who challenges the myths and fallacies and stops them from being passed on to the next generation.

Finally, we need better gender statistics and research. Countries that struggle to collect their own data should liaise with intergovernmental bodies such as the UIS, which may be able to offer help and advice.

For any of these interventions to work, major institutional players must all get involved — groups like the Organization of Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSDW), UN bodies, decision-makers on science policy, funding agencies, and governments.

Yet we must remember that ultimately, the most important contributors to change are the families, communities, school teachers, academic supervisors, and mentors of women scientists — and the women scientists themselves.

With its global and national implications for poverty, economic development, and overall social progress, no country can afford to ignore gender inequality in science.

Doing so would squander a powerful and untapped resource — an army of women scientists who, when properly equipped and empowered, can channel their talent and innovation towards their countries’ development.

Jeanne Therese H. Andres is a Filipino PhD candidate at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge, UK. She has been a fellow of Schlumberger Foundation’s Faculty for the Future programme since 2008.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Overcoming gender barriers in science.


[1] UNESCO Science, Technology and Gender: An International Report  [9.24MB] and Executive Summary [1.58MB] (2007)
[2] UNESCO Institute for Statistics
Women in Science: UIS fact sheet number 6 (2010)
[3] UNESCO Institute for Statistics
Women in Science: Under-represented and under-measured (2006)
Headcounts and Headaches: measuring women in science [3.4MB] A World of Science Vol. 5 n.2 (2007)
[5] Dickey Zakaib G.
Science gender gap probed Nature News (2011)
Economic Importance of Educating Women and Girls Highlighted in Panel Session (2011)
[7] UN
Millennium Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women (fact sheet) (2010)
[8] Ceci S. and Williams W.
Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America doi:10.1073/pnas.1014871108 (2011)
[9] Wenneras C. and Wold A.
Nepotism and sexism in peer-review Nature (1997)
[10] Clayton J.
Fix the system, not the women Science (2011)
[11] Website of the Government of Kerala, India
[12] UNDP India Discussion Paper on Conditional Cash Transfer Schemes for Alleviating Human Poverty: Relevance for India [647kB] (2009)
[13] AAUW
Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (2010)
[14] MIT
A Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT [1.55MB] (2011)
[15] ASSAf
Inquiry-Based Science Education: Increasing Participation of Girls in Science in sub-Saharan Africa [1.69MB] (2011)