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Last Update: 2012-10-26   Source: Research Headlines
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Women in science alarmingly low

A new study has revealed some alarming figures showing that the number of women in engineering, physics and computer science are alarmingly low in the world's leading economies and are on the decline in others. Conducted by experts in international gender, science and technology issues from Women in Global Science & Technology and the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World, and funded by the Elsevier Foundation, the study maps the opportunities and obstacles faced by women in science across Brazil, the EU, India, Indonesia, Korea, South Africa and the United States.

Women scientists © Shutterstock
Women scientists
©  Shutterstock

There are many efforts underway in these countries to give women greater access to science and technology education. However, the research is not showing great results, particularly in the areas of engineering, physics and computer science where women make up less than 30 % in these degree programmes. And while some countries have witnessed an increase in the number of women studying science and technology, this has not necessarily translated into more women in the workplace. In fact the numbers of women actually working in these fields are declining across the board.

'These economies are operating under the existing paradigm that if we give girls and women greater access to education they will eventually gain parity with men in these fields,' states Sophia Huyer, the lead researcher and founding Executive Director of Women in Global Science & Technology. 'This has dictated our approach to the problem for over a decade and we are still only seeing incremental changes. The report indicates that access to education is not a solution in and of itself. It's only one part of what should be a multi-dimensional policymaking approach. There is no simple solution.'

In the face of these results the European Union is doing its best through several initiatives in the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) aiming to encourage the participation of women in research and innovation. The Science in Society initiative provides financial support to research organisations to establish gender equality plans. The programme also funds training to researchers to better integrate gender issues in research projects. Meanwhile, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions encourage women to work in research and through a set of measures help them to balance their career and family life. Nearly 40 % of Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellows funded so far under the EU's current research framework programme (FP7) are women.

The data gathered by the study do give some indication of what can be done. It shows that women's parity in the science, technology and innovation (STI) fields is tied to a number of empowerment factors. Leading these factors that lead to parity are higher economic status, larger roles in government and politics, access to economic, productive and technological resources, quality healthcare and financial resources. Findings also show that women have greater parity in countries with government policies that support childcare, equal pay and gender mainstreaming. One of the main findings is that few countries collect consistent and reliable sex-disaggregated data in all of these areas, which inhibits their ability to implement effective enabling policies and programmes.

'We found that the absence of any one of these elements creates a situation of vulnerability for economies that want to be competitively positioned in the knowledge economy,' Huyer says. 'No one country or region is ticking off all the boxes, and some are falling dismally short. This is a tremendous waste of resources. We are wasting resources educating women without following through, and we are missing out on the enormous potential that women represent.'

'This broad and ambitious assessment is a critical starting point for measuring the participation of women and girls in science, technology and innovation in emerging and developing worlds,' comments David Ruth, Executive Director of the Elsevier Foundation. 'This study identifies key areas of national strength and weakness, and we hope it will help form the basis of evidence-based policy making and aid going forward.'


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