The Widening Gender Gap in Science and Technology

As bad as the gender gap is on the whole, it’s even more startling in fields such as digital information technology, computing, engineering, mathematics and physics.

A new study from UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) finds that women are still dramatically under-represented in the scientific fields that are pushing the digital revolution forward. And the trend doesn’t look to be moving in the right direction.

“Fewer than one in four researchers in the business world is a woman and, when women start up their own business, they struggle to access finance,” says the UNESCO Science Report 2021. “In 2019, just 2% of venture capital was directed towards start-ups founded by women. … The world is undergoing a fundamental transformation that is changing the way we live, work and think. This has far-reaching implications for the role of women in society, in general, and in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in particular.”

Things are a bit better in the life sciences fields. Women made up one-third of the researchers in 2018, achieving parity in many countries. But in skills that will be critical for the future, they’re falling behind. Women make up just 28% of graduates in engineering and 40% of computer sciences grads, according to the report.

The gap is particularly highlighted in the field of artificial intelligence. AI will be a critical component of future industry, as more jobs become automated. At present, though, women make up just 22% of the researchers working in that field overall. (Breakdowns by country vary, of course. In the U.S., they make up 23% of AI researchers – and 28% in Singapore, Italy and South Africa. But in Poland and Germany, that number falls to 16% and it’s as low as 14% in Brazil.)

The risk, says UNESCO, is that the Fourth Industrial Revolution could perpetuate the gender imbalance. Women accounted for 70% of employees in jobs with a high risk of automation – and just 43% of jobs with a low risk of automation. The United Nations anticipates that in this period of change, women will lose five jobs for every one gained.

Female researchers also tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers – and their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals. An UNESCO analysis of nearly 3 million computer science papers published in the U.S. between 1970 and 2018 calculated that gender parity would not be reached in this area until 2100.

“Women are leaving tech fields in greater numbers than men,” says the report. “They cite workplace conditions, lack of access to creative roles and a stalled career as the primary reasons for their decision. This correlates with their underrepresentation in company leadership and technical roles, even if corporate attitudes are evolving. … A 2019 study by the Silicon Valley Bank of start-ups in technology and health care in Canada, China, the UK and USA found that almost half (46%) had no women at all in executive positions.”

While there are plenty of dire figures in the report, it also notes that the current state of technological change could be a good opportunity to better even the playing field for women. To ensure this, though, employers and universities will need to gather comprehensive data on gender trends – and monitor it. Too many countries, says UNESCO, don’t track this – and you can’t fix what you can’t measure.

And the changes to the world brought on by COVID-19 will also have to be watched.

“Some of the radical changes to the work–family balance induced by the pandemic may be here to stay,” it reads. “It will be important for these changes to be converted into policies which ensure that women do not spend a disproportionate amount of time as unpaid carers, homemakers and educators but, rather, have the time and the energy to make their mark on the science and innovation of tomorrow, to tackle the defining challenges of our time.”

That echoes, in part, the findings of the World Economic Forum’s recent 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, which warned that the pandemic could extend the time it takes to bridge the gender gap by an entire generation.

Pre-pandemic, the WEF estimated it would take 100 years to achieve gender parity. Following COVID-19, it upped that estimate to 136 years.

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