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Women and technology – the attitude gap

From school to work, girls and women are lagging behind in the science and technology field. Traditional attitudes, as well as direct and indirect discrimination, are obstacles to progress.

Feature | 07 January 2013

GENEVA (ILO News) - Science and technology are advancing at a rapid pace, offering new opportunities in the workplace. Women, however, are in danger of being left behind. And that is a question of attitudes, not aptitudes.

“Women tend to be overrepresented in the humanities and social sciences, and underrepresented in science and technology,” says Claude Akpokavie, from the ILO’s Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV).

Akpokavie has written a manual evaluating progress made in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, which include promoting gender equality and empowering women. “Measures need to be put in place to redress this imbalance,” he adds.

  • In the United States, a study by Yale University, found that women science graduates were discriminated against when applying for research posts.
  • Iran has announced that women will be excluded from a broad range of university studies including nuclear physics, electrical engineering and mining engineering.
For the Director of the ILO’s Bureau for Gender Equality, Jane Hodges, the gap between men and women in this field is linked to pervasive gender roles and attitudes in different societies, which encourage girls to follow ‘softer’ subjects.  This is apparent in both the developed and developing world.

“Girls are far less likely than boys to study engineering or computer or physical sciences,” Hodges explains. “Stereotypes of girls represent them as less interested or capable in certain subjects – such as mathematics and science. This inevitably reduces their access to jobs with better pay or labour markets that may offer better opportunities.”

However, according to Hodges, when equal participation in scientific studies is encouraged, girls do excel.


Discrimination in numbers

Women earn more than half of the university degrees in OECD countries*, but they receive only 30 per cent of degrees in science and technology.

“The percentage of female graduates advancing to research is even smaller, representing less than 30 per cent of science and technology researchers in most OECD countries and only 12 per cent in Japan and the Republic of Korea,” Hodges adds.

Women who choose to teach science at university level may also find barriers to progression.

In Saudi Arabia, 65 per cent of all enrolments in science degrees in 2010 were by women but they account for just 1 per cent of researchers – a pattern repeated in other parts of the Middle East.
Several news stories have emerged in the last few months, of discriminatory policies and stark gender discrepancies in a number of countries around the world, including the United States, Iran and Middle Eastern countries.

With an estimated 500 million people entering the global workforce over the next decade, Hodges says it is crucial that women in science and technology jobs are not left working at the lowest levels.

“Even though women hold more than 60 per cent of Information and Communication Technology-related jobs in OECD countries, only 10 to 20 per cent are computer programmers, engineers, systems analysts or designers. Education and skills training – and a change in attitudes – are vital to ensure women are not left behind,” she concludes.

* Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD):Gender and Sustainable Development, maximizing the economic, social and environmental role of women (Paris, 2008), p. 23.

Tags: women, technology

Regions and countries covered: Global

Unit responsible: Department of Communication (DCOMM)

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