‘Cracking the code’ to end gender disparities in STEM

By Justine Sass, UNESCO

1Girls and women are significantly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions worldwide, a divide rooted in girls’ earliest days of socialization and schooling and one that a groundbreaking UNESCO report aims to address.

UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova officially launched the report “Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM” at a three-day International Symposium and Policy Forum, attended by more than 300 delegates from over 70 countries, which concluded in Bangkok on Wednesday.  “[The STEM gender gap] disempowers girls and women and throws a shadow over entire societies, placing a break on progress to sustainable development. In this new age of limits, when every country is seeking new sources of dynamism, no one can afford to shunt aside 50 percent of its creativity … 50 percent of its innovation,” she said in her opening remarks.

The “Cracking the code” report highlights that tremendous strides have been made in narrowing the gender gap in education in recent decades. Millions of girls and women previously shut out of learning opportunities altogether now fully exercise their fundamental right to education and thrive in the pursuit. However, severe gender inequalities persist for those already in school. A major concern in many countries is limited educational pathways for girls and more specifically, lower participation and learning achievement of girls in STEM fields of study in many settings.

Globally, UIS data show women represent only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study in higher education. Gender differences also exist in STEM disciplines, with the lowest female enrolment observed in information, communication and technology (ICT) and engineering fields.


STEM fields drive the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, enabling innovative solutions to current and future challenges. There can be no peaceful and lasting development unless girls and women have equal access to education that can fuel their dreams and enable them to contribute to the better world we all desire.

The UNESCO report aims to ‘crack the code’, or to decipher the factors that hinder or facilitate girls’ and women’s participation, achievement and continuation in STEM education, and what can be done by the education sector to promote girls’ and women’s interest in, and engagement with, STEM.


The report finds that girls’ disadvantage in STEM is a result of multiple and overlapping factors embedded in both the socialisation and learning processes. These include social, cultural and gender norms, which influence the way girls and boys are brought up, learn and interact with parents, family, friends, teachers and the wider community. These influences are a powerful force in shaping their identity, beliefs, behaviour and choices.

Girls are often brought up to believe that STEM subjects are “masculine” topics and that female ability in STEM is innately inferior to that of males. While research on biological factors belies any factual basis for such beliefs, they persist and undermine girls’ confidence, interest and willingness to engage in STEM subjects.

Girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects as they get older, particularly between early and late adolescence. The gender gap in STEM becomes particularly apparent in upper secondary education, as reflected in girls’ choices of advanced studies in mathematics and science. Girls’ self-efficacy and attitudes related to STEM are strongly influenced by their immediate family environment, especially parents, but also the wider social and education context.

4Education systems and schools play a central role in determining girls’ interest in STEM subjects and in providing equal opportunities to access and benefit from quality STEM education. Teachers, learning contents, materials and equipment, assessment methods and tools, the overall learning environment and the socialisation process in school, are all critical to ensuring girls’ interest in and engagement with STEM studies and, ultimately, STEM careers.

Getting more girls and women into STEM requires holistic and integrated responses that reach across sectors and that engage girls and women in identifying solutions to persistent challenges. Doing so moves us all towards gender equality in education where women and men, girls and boys can participate fully, develop meaningfully, and create a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable world.

To share more about what you are doing to help girls crack the code, please engage in the UNESCO #GirlsCrackTheCode social media campaign, which aims to highlight:



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