Mapping gender equality in STEM from school to work

The story of disparities in STEM in 17 illuminating charts

Andaleeb Alam
20 November 2020

The future of work is changing. Existing jobs are being modified and new ones are emerging at the frontiers of our economies, which require knowledge and skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). At the same time, millions of children and young people aren't developing the skills they need to effectively participate in society. Girls, in particular, are missing out on the skills they will need throughout their lives and to become more effective citizens and changemakers — skills which quality STEM education can cultivate, like thinking laterally, problem solving and innovating.

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Millions of girls are deprived of opportunities to build their skills, including in STEM

125 million girls of primary and secondary age in the developing world are out of school. Girls’ exclusion from education begins early and increases over their lifetime. While the vast majority of adolescent girls of upper secondary age begin primary education, fewer than half make it to the upper secondary level where STEM skills can be further solidified.

UNICEF / Artwork adapted from Education Pathways Analysis Dashboard and based on a sample of 92 LMICs across all regions

Girls in school are equally or more likely than boys to achieve minimum proficiency levels in math and science

At the upper primary level, at least as many girls as boys achieve minimum proficiency levels (MPL). This is also true at the secondary level where the share of girls achieving MPL is equal to or higher than boys in most countries.

However, this global snapshot masks regional differences…

In stark contrast to the performance of girls in many other parts of the world, fewer girls than boys are achieving MPL in math at the upper primary level in most developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. At the secondary level, too, the gender gap in favour of boys is visible in most developing countries in Latin America.

…as well as differences based on students’ socio-economic status within countries

Socio-economic status (SES) is a key factor, with boys of a lower status more likely than comparable girls to achieve MPL in math in most countries at both upper primary and secondary. But at higher SES, boys have an advantage in only a minority of countries at upper primary and secondary.

Girls are less likely than boys to achieve high proficiency levels in STEM

Achieving minimum proficiency is not sufficient to effectively participate in society. Yet, fewer girls than boys achieve high proficiency levels in STEM in most countries. This is also true even where there is no gender gap in mean scores. At upper secondary, too, fewer girls choose STEM majors.

Gender gaps in digital skills are wider in developing countries than in developed countries

In developing countries, the gender digital divide constrains girls’ development of digital skills. Gender norms pose yet another obstacle. In Sub-Saharan Africa, boys gain more in digital skills when they are in school compared to girls. Even among households with computers in DR Congo and Ghana, girls have lower levels of digital skills than boys.

When girls do use the computer or internet, they exhibit similar cognitive and behavioural skills as boys…

Girls are at least as good at solving problems in technology-rich environment as boys in most countries. Likewise, there appears to be small gender differences and no consistent pattern in gender gaps when it comes to critical evaluation and privacy skills.

… but when it comes to advanced digital skills, women lag behind men everywhere

Very few countries can boast 10 per cent or more women with programming skills. But 31 can point to at least 10 per cent of men with these skills. There is also evidence to suggest that even when adolescent girls outperform boys in computer and information literacy, they lag behind boys in computational thinking skills.

Girls have lower self-confidence in their STEM abilities than boys in most countries

Girls’ confidence in their own abilities is vital to perform at a high level. In most countries, grade 4 girls had less confidence than boys in their math abilities. Fifteen-year-old girls also had lower self-confidence in most countries. Even where there was no gender gap in mean scores, girls had lower self-efficacy than boys in most cases.

Girls’ lower self-confidence is linked to gender gaps in their STEM engagement, interest and enjoyment

While girls value scientific approaches to enquiry at least as much as boys, they have lower interest in science (except health) and lower participation in science activities in most countries. In math, too, girls show lower interest and enjoyment.

Fewer girls than boys aspire to careers in science, technology or engineering, even among top performers

Being capable or confident in STEM doesn't mean girls want to pursue STEM careers. In almost all countries, more boys than girls aspire to careers in science, engineering or tech.

Gender gaps in STEM engagement, interest, enjoyment, and future career aspirations are shaped by gender norms, bias and stereotype

Gender gaps in aspirations and attitudes at secondary level affects choices at the tertiary level

Globally, 18 per cent of girls in tertiary education are pursuing STEM studies — compared to 35 per cent of boys. Even within the STEM fields, there lies a gender divide, with similar numbers of boys and girls pursuing natural sciences while far more boys looked to engineering, manufacturing and construction.

Women find themselves underrepresented in STEM jobs

Women comprise about 40 per cent of the STEM workforce. Women are well represented in health but are acutely under-represented in engineering and technology jobs and in STEM jobs of the future.

Women’s underrepresentation in STEM careers is shaped by gender stereotypes, bias and norms

Gender stereotypes and lack of role models affect girls’ interest in STEM from an early age. Yet, even when women get STEM degrees, many do not pursue STEM jobs. Gender discrimination and bias at work also discourage women from entering or remaining in STEM jobs.

The number of women entrepreneurs in STEM is also low but growing…

Women are also under-represented in entrepreneurship in STEM. In the US, 26 per cent of tech startups have at least one female founder, and in Europe, only 21 per cent of tech founders are female. However, numbers are increasing — potentially creating more role models for girls and women.

...however, women STEMpreneurs face many challenges

Lack of self-confidence, networks, market access and finance are common pain points, as
is lower female mentorship. Gender biases in tech incubators and accelerators pose a further barrier. Investor perceptions also reflect gender biases.