Equal opportunity still a far cry for women: UNESCO report


In today’s world, where equal opportunity is in the center of everything we do, women’s influence and position have improved tenfold compared to the previous generations.

However, according to a recent study, women are still lagging behind in many areas, especially in engineering, computer science, and informatics.

The results from UNESCO Science Report show that despite a shortage of skills in many of the technological fields, women account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics.

The findings were published in the study titled, ‘To be Smart the Digital Revolution will Need to be Inclusive’, in a chapter on gender in science, which came out on Thursday, February 11. It was published to mark the significance of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

According to UNESCO, the share of women among engineering graduates is lower than the global average for many members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

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.

While the corporate attitudes towards women are evolving, there is clearly a long way to go to balance the scales, as studies link investor confidence and greater profit margins to having a diverse workforce.

The need for women to be a part of the next revolution is not just important as a matter of equal opportunity but also for the world to be built with ideas that are inclusive to both the sexes.

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 study also shows 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.

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. 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.

According to UNESCO, 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 Program, 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.

Likewise, the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists whose five 2021 awardees will receive their awards at an online ceremony on 9 February. 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.

The complete UNESCO Science Report: the Race against Time for Smarter Development, is scheduled to be released in April this year.