Girls and women are underrepresented in STEM education and STEM careers. This disparity is alarming as these are often referred to as the jobs of the future – driving innovation, social wellbeing and sustainable development.
The International Day for girls in ICT aims to shine a light on this disparity. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), exposing girls to digital skills at a young age can help to promote their interest in STEM subjects and encourage them to pursue careers in research and experimental development (R&D). According to ITU Facts and Figures 2022 , globally, girls are still less likely than boys to have digital skills; though internet access is changing among the younger generation with around 75% of both young females (aged 15-24), and young males connected to the internet. The gender gap and generational gap is more concerning in lower-income nations in which 21% of women are online compared to 32% of men and 39% of young people use the internet, compared to only 23% of the rest of the population.
Women’s equality is an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including within SDG 4 for education and SDG 9.5 for scientific research, for which the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) collects and produces data. At the Transforming Education Summit in September 2022, Member States approved five thematic Action Tracks -AT-, including AT4 which calls on countries to enhance digital learning. Information by country on youth and adult ICT skills and attainment of minimum levels of digital literacy as measured by SDG 4.4.1 and SDG 4.4.2 can be found on the UIS SDG 4 Data Explorer.
However, gender disparities in ICT are complicated. The gender equality paradox – which applies to both ICT and STEM subjects overall – countries with higher levels of gender equality do not necessarily have more girls enrolled in ICT or STEM programmes in school. In fact, the report points out that Arab states, have relatively higher proportions of women studying ICT.
Possible explanations for the gender equality paradox in ICT may be individual-level decisions regarding learners’ belief in the value of an ICT degree, or cultural practices preventing girls and women from pursuing ICT and STEM course work even when gender equality in a country is otherwise strong. Either way, the roots of the gender disparity run deep.
While women were able to gain traction as coders and programmers in the 1950s, once the importance of the field became clear, men gained dominance. Over time, this was reinforced at home as boys were more likely to receive computers as gifts giving them an “experience” edge in increasingly competitive school programmes. At the same time, girls’ confidence in their facility with ICT skills like math, tends to fall in secondary school, just when they are making decisions for tertiary education. Finally, for women who do enter ICT fields, the attrition rate is disproportionately higher – likely from gender discrimination, a lack of role models, and a pay gap with male peers.
Girls risk being left out of career opportunities
The risks to girls and women of digital exclusion are large, and could be felt in lower labour force participation as economies become more dependent on technologies like AI. This also bares out in UIS data on SDG 9.5.2 measuring researchers (in full-time equivalent) per million inhabitants, which showed that women held just 31.2% of research positions in science in 2020 based on headcount measurements.
Achieving the global objective to “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation” will require harnessing all talent and potential by addressing gender imbalances in the research workforce. In particular, SDG Target 9.5 calls upon countries to innovate and increase the number of researchers, as well as public and private spending on R&D.
Women remained under-represented among researchers in many countries around the world
At the country level there is widespread under-representation of women researchers. According to UIS data, only about one in four countries have achieved gender parity out of 151 countries with available data in the period 1996–2021. At the same time, in 127 countries, women represented less than a half of total researchers, and out of that in around 56 countries women’s share is less than a third.
On the other hand, women researchers outnumbered men in the following countries: Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Myanmar, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Panama, Philippines, Serbia, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
The three countries with highest share of female researchers per SDG region for 2021 (or latest available year):
Countries with lowest share of female researchers in different regions (as per SDG regions) for 2021 (or latest available year):
In addition, in the following countries, the share of female researchers has increased significantly – at least by 25% – between 2010 and 2021 (or latest available year):
For gender equality in the number of researchers in STEM subjects, it is important to promote the talents of girls, including encouraging their interest in digital communication skills.
One of the ways to do this is through UNESCO’s 2021 initiative called Accelerating Girls’ Digital Access, Skills and Online Learning which recommended government action to 1) close the gender gap in girls’ access to online learning, 2) use technology to advance educational opportunities and 3) ensure that there are safe learning space online. Transforming cultures to ensure that girls are included in ICT courses in school and access to digital technologies at home, holding teacher professional development workshops, and designing mentoring programmes are other avenues schools and governments can take to encourage girls and women to pursue careers in STEM.
As digital skills become an increasingly essential part of day-to-day life it is critical that women and girls have the same opportunities as boys and men when it comes to access to the internet, participation in STEM courses in school, and inclusion in technology and science jobs in the labour force. There is also needs to be a cultural transformation to enable girls’ full participation in digital and online learning. If we are to achieve an equal future we must start with equal access to skill development.
Feel free to explore UIS R&D data on share of female researchers on the UIS data brower.
For information on ICT - related fields, please see the UIS Glossary.
UNESCO and Equals Global Partnership. (2019). I'd blush if I could: closing gender divides in digital skills through education.Paris, UNESCO. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000367416
UNESCO. (2020). UNESCO and the promise of gender equality: key actions of 2018 and 2019. Paris, UNESCO. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000372716
UNESCO. (2022). Guidelines for ICT in education policies and masterplans. Paris, UNESCO. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000380926