How are donors helping to end the gender imbalance in science?

Many countries, usually poorer ones, are still far even from the target of parity in primary and secondary education enrolment, let alone the more aspirational target of non-discrimination in all aspects of the education system. Girls’ education therefore remains a priority area for many actors in international development. But how do donors approach the main priorities?

When preparing our Gender Report in the run up to the G7 Ministerial Meeting on Education and Development last year, the GEM Report team and UNESCO sent a questionnaire to the aid agencies of the G7 countries, selected international organizations and NGOs, asking them to put forward projects for tackling 12 priorities in girls’ education. Today, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we outline how big the problem is, and summarise selected responses to the issue.

Gender gaps persist in subject choice

7. STEMThere is an international day for girls and women in science because gender gaps in subject choice speak  volumes about the extent to which bias remains in the system.   Despite being the majority of university graduates, women are heavily under-represented in certain programmes.  Across more than 120 countries, women make up only just over 25% of students in tertiary engineering, manufacturing and construction programmes and in information and communication technology (ICT). The countries where women make up the smallest shares of graduates from both these programmes are largely in western Africa (Benin, Ghana, Mali) and western Europe (Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland).

Parity is possible, as is demonstrated by the fact that there are countries that have close to equal numbers of men and women graduating, including in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.  The statistical tables in our latest Gender Report give you the percentages by country of females among graduates in engineering and science.

figure 8The subjects that students choose are closely linked to what future job aspirations they have. In countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for instance, among 15-year-olds, boys are more than twice as likely as girls to expect to work as engineers, scientists or architects, and are ten times as likely to want to work as ICT professionals. In Finland, 6.2% of boys expect to work as engineers, scientists or architects, four times higher than the percentage of girls with similar aspirations (1.4%).

How are donors trying to redress the balance?

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© UNICEF/UNI279362/Moving Minds

An important factor in motivating girls to enrol in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes is helping them overcome anxiety and gain confidence in their abilities. To help girls feel confident in making choices, education systems need to improve career guidance and orientation advice services and promote role models.

In South Africa, the UNICEF TechnoGirl programme, in partnership with the Department of Education, has addressed gender inequity in STEM since 2005. Girls aged 15 to 18 from underprivileged urban and rural schools who are doing well academically are placed in corporate mentorship and skills development initiatives. This helps them gain confidence and link their school lessons to the skills they need to succeed in the labour market. They receive help in making informed career choices, with an emphasis on science, technology and engineering. In addition, over 5,000 young women have received university or college scholarships. There are now TechnoGirl initiatives in all nine provinces, helping build a cadre of future leaders. An evaluation of the project found that only 11% of participants reported they would probably have pursued a different career path had it not been for the project, however, which means there is significant scope for improving targeting.

The Gender-Responsive Quality STEM Education project, funded by Japan, targets francophone African countries, including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Madagascar, Mali, Niger and Senegal. The programme provides training for teachers, teacher trainers, school administrators and government partners. It covers enabling and prohibitive factors for girls’ education in STEM, as well as the role of school administrators, heads of teacher training colleges, and representatives from ministerial technical departments in providing leadership to create a school environment conducive to gender-equitable participation in STEM. Participants learn about gender-sensitive responsive pedagogy, critically analyse educational resources and are instructed in ways to use ICT to improve girls’ participation in STEM.

What are you doing to help end the gender imbalance in science? Help share your experiences for others to learn from via the comments section on this blog.



  1. Do the interventions and programs take into account the differences in career interests between men and women?
    1. A study, Men and Things, Women and People: A Meta-Analysis of Sex Differences in Interests, conducted the first comprehensive meta-analysis (examination of data from a number of independent studies of the same subject, in order to determine overall trends) of differences in occupational interests between men and women. The study concluded that:
    ” The present study, however, revealed substantial sex differences in vocational interests. The largest difference between men and women was found along the Things–People dimension, with men gravitated toward things-oriented careers and women gravitated toward people-oriented careers.”
    2. One study looked at gender differences in interests across 53 countries and found the same pattern of gender differences in all countries. Countries that were more progressive and egalitarian did not have smaller gender differences in occupational interests. However, there is research that found the more gender egalitarian countries had larger differences in broad science interest between men and women while there were no differences in ability.

    Based on these facts should we expect that women will make the same career choices as men?

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