Poor nations lead the way on gender equality in research

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Copyright: Atul Loke / Panos

Speed read

  • Developing nations are above the world average for gender parity in science
  • But nine of the ten worst performers are also developing countries
  • The number of female scientists in many countries is unknown due to data gaps

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Developing nations are leading the way over gender equality within science, but the performance of many countries is unknown as they are failing to survey their research and development (R&D) sectors, UN data shows.

Nine of the ten countries with the highest ratio of female to male researchers — all with more female than male scientists — came from the developing world, according to data on the number and gender of researchers collected by the UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Institute for Statistics (UIS).

Myanmar had the highest percentage of female scientists, with 85.5 per cent, followed by Bolivia, Venezuela, Georgia, the Philippines, Paraguay, Cape Verde, Argentina, Azerbaijan and New Zealand.

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Nearly a quarter of developing countries achieved gender parity — defined by UIS as having between 45 and 55 per cent female researchers — slightly higher than the world average of a fifth.

All but one of the ten worst-performing nations, however, were also from the developing world. Taking bottom spot, Saudi Arabia followed by Guinea, Ethiopia and Nepal failed to hit even a modest level of ten per cent of researchers being women. (All statistics are the most recent data available, with measurement dates ranging from 2011 to 1997.)

Martin Schaaper, a UIS programme specialist, says it is great that many developing nations are achieving gender parity, but warns that these statistics must not be equated to a progressive and healthy research environment.

For example, the good performance of South America — where an average of 46 per cent of researchers are women compared with a global average of 30 per cent — may be due to working conditions being so poor that men avoid the sector rather than any political or cultural incentives for women to pursue science careers, he tells SciDev.Net.

Furthermore, Schaaper questions how much impact R&D statistics have in developing nations, which often “lack the culture” of regularly using indicators and metrics to assess and guide science and technology policy. “Data like these may generate debates and analysis, but there is some doubt whether they influence policy,” he says.

“By finding out what is going on with their [research] systems, everyone benefits from the strengthened ties between ministries, business and academia.”

Michael Kahn, Stellenbosch University

Without any perceived benefit, developing nations with limited resources are hesitant to conduct expensive and time-consuming surveys of their R&D sectors, leaving many gaps in the UIS data set, he adds. (See map.) Other gaps in the data can be explained by varying collection methods. The United States, for example, gathers gender-disaggregated data on ‘scientists and engineers’ but not ‘researchers’.

A push to encourage countries in Africa to improve their R&D statistics through the African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators Initiative, has seen an improvement in the situation, says Schaaper, adding that there are still far too few records worldwide to build up a comprehensive picture.

Small island states struggle

Islands across the Caribbean and Pacific are particularly badly represented in the data set, which Schaaper believes is due to these states lacking dedicated statistical units within government ministries to do specialised R&D surveys.

In the Pacific, the island of Nauru is the only small island developing state across the whole region that possesses information on its researchers. The Caribbean islands, while faring better — Bermuda, Cuba, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, have collected research data — still have less than 40 per cent of states represented in the UIS data.

Efforts should be made to encourage small states to conduct comprehensive surveys that cover business R&D as well as publicly funded research, as they can catalyse cooperation among scientists, says Michael Kahn, an independent innovation policy advisor who also works at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. “It is the process, not the results, that is important,” he says.

“By finding out what is going on with their [research] systems, everyone benefits from the strengthened ties between ministries, business and academia.”
Click here to view our interactive map on this data.

Note on data: The UNESCO Institute of Statistics releases data on the numbers of female researchers annually. The data used for this analysis was obtained from UIS on 25 March 2014. Link to UIS data