UNESCO issues warning as number of women in computer sciences falls
Scientist working in a photonics lab. Image: Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock

UNESCO issues warning as number of women in computer sciences falls

10 Feb 2017

Ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, UNESCO issued a warning to STEM advocates, after finding that the number of women in computer science is falling globally.

The launch of the UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 that enshrined 11 February as the annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science was done so in order to highlight the disparity between the number of men and women working in STEM roles.

Nearly two years later, UNESCO has shown that not only does this continue to be the case, but the gap is getting wider.

According to the organisation, despite the fact that more than half the world’s bachelor’s and master’s graduates (and 43pc of PhD graduates) are women, only 28pc are researchers.

Perhaps the biggest area of concern for STEM advocates is that the number of women in computer science has been in decline since the beginning of the 21st century, particularly in high-income countries.

Between 2000 and 2012, the share of women graduates in computer science slipped in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and the USA.

Additionally, in South America and the Caribbean, the share of women graduates in computer science has dropped by between two and 13 percentage points since 2000.

Falling numbers in a growing field

“This should be a wake-up call,” UNESCO said in a statement prior to this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

“Female participation is falling in a field that is expanding globally as its importance for national economies grows, penetrating every aspect of daily life. Could this be a symptom of the phenomenon by which ‘women are the first hired and the first fired?’”

Similar under-representation has been noted in engineering and related fields in the developed world. In Japan and South Korea, only 5pc and 10pc of its engineers are women, respectively.

These two countries have the widest gaps in remuneration between men and women researchers of any member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with 29pc for Japan and 39pc for South Korea.

However, some good news is emerging from the developing world, as countries such as Malaysia and Oman have reached parity, or even majority numbers.

Progress starts with the rights and dignity of women

The most obvious trend over the course of nearly two decades of research has shown that STEM participation is increasing in agricultural sciences, where women have reached parity or majority in a number of countries.

For example, six out of 10 researchers are women in both medical and agricultural sciences in Belarus and New Zealand, while women make up more than two-thirds of medical science researchers in El Salvador, Estonia, Kazakhstan, and more.

Despite this, UNESCO’s director general Irina Bokova said that the intervening years “throws a shadow” over the organisation’s effort to bring greater parity into STEM.

“Girls continue to face stereotypes, and social and cultural restrictions, limiting access to education and funding for research, preventing them from scientific careers and reaching their full potential,” she said.

“Women remain a minority in science research and decision-making. Meaningful progress must start with the rights and dignity of women, by nurturing their ingenuity and innovation.”

UNESCO infographic

Click for a higher resolution image. Infographic: Unesco

Colm Gorey
By Colm Gorey

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic. He joined in January 2014 and covered AI, IoT, science and anything that will get us to Mars quicker. When not trying to get his hands on the latest gaming release, he can be found lost in a sea of Wikipedia articles on obscure historic battles and countries that don't exist any more, or watching classic Simpsons episodes far too many times to count.

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