Hidden figures: showing the importance of women in science

Tomorrow is the second year of celebrating the new UN Day on Girls and Women in Science. This subject seems to be picking up steam. It has even hit the big time – featuring in a blockbuster Hollywood film, Hidden Figures, about the role of black women responsible for doing the equations behind the space trips of astronauts for NASA. Formally recognizing this issue in a UN day – a previously hidden manifestation of gender inequality – is worth celebrating.

It’s worth remembering that gender equality in education cannot be boiled down just to what’s going on in the classroom. The links between education and work show why. What happens in the labour market can affect what happens in schools and universities. The different ways that women and men participate in labour markets is not just down to the level of education they have under their belts, but is also due to the influences of cultural norms, stereotypes and discrimination.

Smashing the glass ceiling

Within institutions, women can find it difficult to reach senior positions, hitting a ‘glass ceiling’. Likewise, relatively few women occupy senior leadership positions in key economic institutions. Significant pay gaps exist between women and men doing the same job in virtually all occupations. In many high-income countries, even though more women complete secondary education than men, still men will earn more.

It’s not just that women hit a glass ceiling and can’t access the top echelon of jobs. Analysis shows that women and men continue to be concentrated in different labour market sectors: women are more likely to end up teaching or nursing, for example; men are more likely to become engineers or work in computer technology. These jobs, we should not forget, also often come with different levels of status, remuneration and security. According to the International Labour Organization, such occupational segregation was decreasing until the 1990s, but has since risen.

women-in-science-quoteWhere does this job gender split come from? The evidence shows that it mostly comes from the different choices of subjects and degree programs that women and men make at higher levels of education. In OECD countries, only 14% of young women entering higher education for the first time in 2012 chose science related fields of study, compared with 39% of young men.

Girls are far less likely to consider a career in computer science, physics or engineering. In the United States in 1983/84, for example, 37% of computer science bachelor’s degree graduates were women, but by 2010/11 the share had fallen to 18%.

In tertiary education, data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics show that almost 70% of those studying education were female, compared to only 25% of those studying engineering, manufacturing and construction.


Pushing the boundaries

It’s not just blockbuster movies challenging these gender norms, thankfully. In recent decades, many countries have taken initiatives to encourage girls and women to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as the STEM subjects.

Launched in 1984, the Women in Science and Engineering campaign in the United Kingdom, for instance, promotes engineering apprenticeship programmes, scholarships for women studying engineering, workshops on careers in construction and engineering, resources for teachers of STEM subjects in schools, and regional networking opportunities to help develop links between schools, universities and industry.

Similarly, the TechWomen programme uses mentorship, knowledge exchange and networking to connect and support women in STEM from Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. Participants engage in project-based mentorships at leading technology companies in the United States and are encouraged to inspire other girls and women in their communities to follow their ambitions. Since 2011, 333 women from 21 countries, including Algeria, Cameroon, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Kenya and Zimbabwe, have participated.

In June 2016, the U.S. Mission to UNESCO and partners launched a comprehensive approach to ‘STEAM’ education, incorporating ‘arts’ (and design) in the acronym to encourage innovative cross-disciplinary skills and initiatives.

Teachers can also help affect subject and program choice. Lessons can allow students to critically reflect on gendered norms. This in turn can help break occupational stereotypes and help address gender-based segregation.

mathsAre you worth it?

But we shouldn’t just look to education to try and solve it. Part of the problem lies in deeply held gender roles and expectations conveyed at home and in communities that perpetuate this segregation. If there’s a lack of role models, or negative attitudes in the household, perceived inability in mathematics or fear of being in the minority can influence girls’ willingness to choose specific courses and disciplines. The recent research by the University of Illinois, which showed that 6-year-old girls in the USA believed brilliance to be something only boys have underlines how deep socialization can go.

Watching whether girls and women enter science and technology fields may seem an indirect way of looking at gender equality. But the fact is that, while gender inequality is often hard to define or pin down, STEM gender gaps can be clearly highlighted with data. This should mean that it’s a clear case where monitoring can help raise awareness of the issue and hopefully encourage a more gender equal society.



  1. It is absolutely correct and important what is written down in this article. Thank you very much for opening some people’s eyes that gender equality still is a problem and is more complicated with hidden and deeper roots. I wrote an article myself about it. With two girls and as Montessori Teacher this is a subject which will be always present.

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