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Gender Bias Against Women Career Scientists Upsets UNESCO

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By Jaya Ramachandran

PARIS (IDN) — “Even today, in the 21st century, women and girls are being sidelined in science-related fields due to their gender,” warns the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

Women need to know that they have a place in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and that they have a right to share in scientific progress, adds the UNESCO chief.

Her remarks are based on the UNESCO Science Report to be published in April 2021. The chapter of the report on gender in science, entitled To be Smart the Digital Revolution will Need to be Inclusive, was published on February 11, 2021, to mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It reveals that despite a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics.

Produced with the generous support of the Fondation Ipsen, the UNESCO Science Report tracks trends and developments in science governance worldwide every five years. The forthcoming edition will have a dual focus on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The specific chapter of the report accentuates that the share of women among engineering graduates is lower than the global average for many members of the 37-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This is the case, for instance, in Australia (23.2%), Canada (19.7%), Chile (17.7%), France (26.1%), Japan (14.0%), the Republic of Korea (20.1%), Switzerland (16.1%), and the USA (20.4%). 

There is no distinct regional pattern. Some of the highest proportions of female engineering graduates can be found in the Arab States, for example in Algeria (48.5%), Morocco (42.2%), Oman (43.2%), Syria (43.9%) and Tunisia (44.2%), and in Latin America where women account for 41.7% of engineering graduates in Cuba, 47.5% in Peru and 45.9% in Uruguay. Wide disparities are also to be found among countries of the same region.

The chapter also highlights the fact that women are not benefitting fully from employment opportunities open to highly educated and skilled experts in cutting edge fields such as artificial intelligence where only one in five professionals (22%) is a woman, according to a 2018 study by the World Economic Forum on the Global Gender Gap.

Likewise, women founders of start-ups still struggle to access finance and, in large tech companies they remain underrepresented in both leadership and technical positions. They are also more likely than men to leave the tech field, often citing poor career prospects as a key motivation for their decision. Corporate attitudes towards women are evolving, however, as studies link investor confidence and greater profit margins to having a diverse workforce.

The report argues that women need to be part of the digital economy to prevent Industry 4.0 from perpetuating traditional gender biases. As the impact of artificial intelligence on societal priorities continues to grow, the underrepresentation of women’s contribution to research and development means that their needs and perspectives are likely to be overlooked in the design of products that impact our daily lives, such as smartphone applications.

The glass ceiling remains an obstacle

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the glass ceiling also remains an obstacle to women’s careers in academia, despite some progress. Globally, women have achieved numerical parity (45–55%) at the bachelor’s and master’s levels of study and are on the cusp at PhD level (44%).

The gender gap widens as women progress in their academic careers, with lower participation at each successive rung of the ladder from doctoral student to assistant professor to director of research or full professor.

Overall, female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers. Their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals and they are often passed over for promotion. Women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women.

The report further informs that the gender bias is also found in peer-review processes and at scientific conferences at which men are invited to speak on scientific panels twice as often as women. (Data on the global share of female researchers is based on information collected over 2015-2018 by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics from 107 countries.)

This persistent inequality is contrary to Article 24 of the UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers (2017), which affirms that States should ensure that scientific researchers enjoy equitable conditions of work, recruitment and promotion, appraisal, training and pay without discrimination.


The Request a Woman Scientist database is one response to gender discrimination in science. A part of the 500 Women Scientists organization, it connects a multidisciplinary network of professionally vetted women scientists with anyone who needs to consult, invite, and collaborate with, or identify, a female specialist.

Prestigious prizes are another way to showcase excellence and challenge negative stereotypes about women in science. One example is the L’Oréal–UNESCO For Women in Science Programme, which for the past 23 years, has been raising the profile of outstanding women researchers through the annual attribution of prizes and research fellowships with a view to changing attitudes and providing positive female role models.

In 2019, the programme extended its own international prizes and fellowships to include mathematics and computer science, in recognition of the lack of visibility of women in fields which are at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Five new awardees were announced on February 11.

Likewise, the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists whose five 2021awardees received their awards at an online ceremony on February 9. Since 2013, UNESCO and the Elsevier Foundation have been presenting annual awards to women from developing countries who have overcome considerable obstacles to achieve research excellence. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 February 2021]

Photo credit: UNESCO

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