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Women in science

February 10, 2022

The under-representation of women persists in fields traditionally dominated by men, and despite many and varied efforts to eradicate it, the “glass ceiling” for women in science is among the hardest to break. Progress has been made towards gender parity in higher education, yet the gap is much wider in science fields. For example, UNESCO in 2021 estimated that 45-55% of students worldwide at the master’s and bachelor’s levels of study were women. However, in science fields such as engineering and computer science, women on average make up a much smaller percentage of graduates in higher education. This gap widens when moving up the ladder in academic careers: Today, women represent 30% of the world’s researchers and just 12% of members of national science academies, with even smaller proportions in lower-income countries. This is also the case in high-tech fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), where a Strathmore University study indicated women represent 29% of the workforce and just 10% of leadership positions in the AI industry across the African continent.

This is not only a problem of representation, nor one borne by women alone – it is a problem for all members of society. Those who work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have a major role to play in finding creative and sustainable solutions to the world’s complex problems. Without the inputs of women scientists and the unique perspectives they bring, scientific opportunities will remain limited, and so will our collective abilities to address such challenges  ̶  from diseases to food insecurity to climate change.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing structural barriers to women advancing in science, presenting an even greater threat to inclusivity and innovation. Women have taken on disproportionately more household and childcare duties due to the pandemic, with female scientists in the developed and developing world alike citing many negative impacts on their ability to conduct research and publish, relative to their male counterparts. This has the potential to create even greater downstream challenges to the inclusion of women in STEM fields.

IDRC is committed to understanding and addressing these problems, by supporting the production of evidence that can help advance the inclusion and leadership of women in stronger and more equitable science systems in the Global South. Our programming is helping to push the needle on improving equality, diversity and inclusion in science. 

Improving representation and participation

Research from UNESCO has shown that the gender gap in STEM begins at the primary-school level, perpetuated by societal stereotypes and biases, and continues to worsen at each progressive academic stage. By the time women enter higher education and then the world of work, they face even greater barriers, with female scientists tending to have shorter and less well-paid careers than their male counterparts.

Media
Sherley Dominique,left,and Malvoisin Stephanie Martine,right,take class at ISETAH in Port-au-Prince Haiti,March 29,2016.
IDRC/Shiho Fukada

The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) works to redress these challenges by supporting women to enter and advance in scientific careers through individual research funding and training as well as networking opportunities. Since 2017, IDRC has partnered with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to support more than 200 women doctoral students and scientists in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) through OWSD. This early-career fellowships program enables promising women scientists to further progress in their own careers and assume greater leadership responsibilities. In this way, science systems will evolve to better support the next generation of women scientists. Equally important is the opportunity for these scientists to access funding and pursue lines of research that can help solve the types of problems faced by developing countries and global society at large. For example, a veterinarian from the first cohort of OWSD fellows is now recognized as a leading researcher in Rwanda and is running her own research lab as a direct result of the support OWSD provided to her research. In 2020, early-career fellows involved in this program were undertaking important work in a range of subjects  ̶  from the study of genetic risk factors for breast cancer in Ghanaian women to the development of drought-resistant rice varieties in Sri Lanka.

We also know that gender is not the only factor that prevents women from entering and progressing in science. Intersectionality, taking into account race, socio-economic status and multiple overlapping aspects of a person’s social and political identities, is also an important factor. For example, IDRC’s post-doctoral program for Indigenous women in STEM supports the career advancement of fellows in Mexico and Guatemala. To date, women representing various Indigenous groups have been supported to pursue their leading work in different disciplines, from chemistry to food science, and many have successfully applied to become part of the national system of researchers, in large part thanks to their individual fellowships. This project also includes a research component that is contributing to greater understanding of the barriers faced by Indigenous women in STEM in the Latin American region.

Advancing gender considerations in STEM

While we continue to gather evidence on the importance of increasing women’s active participation in science, IDRC is also supporting research into developing more inclusive scientific norms and practices, with the aim of improving the overall quality of research. Although many disciplines now recognize the imperative of gender analysis for high-quality research, this remains underdeveloped in STEM fields. Integrating sex and gender analysis into the design of research, for example, has been shown to improve research methodology and help to foster scientific discoveries. Yet there are still significant knowledge gaps about the challenges of integrating gender analysis in STEM, particularly in the developing world.

Accounting for sex and gender in research design has been highlighted as an increasingly important area to advance inclusivity of STEM. Historically, women have been excluded from scientific research trials, particularly in the field of health. This has been to the detriment of applicability, as revealed in  studies that have found some pain therapies and cancer immunotherapies to be less effective in women. IDRC is funding several projects to help change these norms. One example is the Gendered Design in Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math project, which aims to build capacity in gendered innovations through the development of new or improved products designed using sex and gender analysis, with a focus on LMICs.

Media
Researchers from ATREE
Atul Loke/IDRC

In the AI field, there have been documented examples of alarming bias and exclusion in AI systems and datasets. This problem is particularly pronounced for populations in the Global South, women and marginalized communities. If left uncorrected, these biases can lead to greater social inequalities and may end up causing more harm than the good promised by AI. The Feminist AI project, launched by IDRC in 2021, aims to improve how AI can better address social problems, strengthen the capacities of researchers in the developing world to undertake inclusive AI research and advance gender equality. Some projects are addressing the use of AI for social good, such as the diagnosis of malaria and tuberculosis with a mobile phone using mobile microscopy. We are also building on the promising work of the Artificial Intelligence for Development (AI4D) program, with a new hub for gender equality and inclusion in Africa through responsible AI innovations. This includes novel research by and for women in AI, which is helping to advance knowledge on the systemic and cultural gender disparities in the AI industry in Africa.

Understanding and breaking barriers

Although the systemic barriers to women scientists’ participation is under increasing study, such data and case studies have historically been based on countries in the Global North. To address this research gap, IDRC in 2020 funded new projects to research the unique obstacles facing women and other marginalized groups in STEM in low-income countries. These projects are researching the gender gaps and barriers for women’s advancement in a range of fields and sectors in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Building on this pilot initiative, funding was expanded in 2021 for Gender in STEM projects that aim to both increase gender analysis in STEM research as well as advance women’s leadership based on the greater understanding of context-specific barriers to advancement in the countries of study. The research activities range from gender analysis in water and climate science in South Asia to testing institutional efforts for gender mainstreaming in sub-Saharan Africa. These new research projects will increase localized evidence on the key factors that constrain or support women scientists, while identifying innovative approaches to strengthen higher-education and related institutions’ measures to be more inclusive of women and gender analysis in STEM.

Collectively, our efforts are helping to understand and improve women’s leadership in science, integrate gender analysis as a standard in scientific research and slowly break down the barriers that prevent women from progressing in STEM fields. By providing evidence on what works, contextually grounded in the realities of women in LMICs, we can create more equitable science systems that improve the lives of all.

Find out more about our work by visiting: Education and Science | IDRC - International Development Research Centre 

Research highlights

The Education and Science program is committed to supporting the production of evidence that can help advance the inclusion and leadership of women in stronger and more equitable science systems in the Global South. This includes:

  • improving the representation and participation of women scientists
  • advancing gender analysis and considerations in STEM fields including AI
  • understanding and breaking down barriers faced by women and other marginalized groups in science