Investing in girls & women as agents of change for green transition

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Dam under construction in Sri Lanka Ensuring girls and women have access to education and career opportunities in STEM fields can help countries address climate change and accelerate the green transition. Copyright: Lakshman Nadaraja/World Bank

Fostering gender equity and equality is smart economics and can help countries tackle some of the toughest issues, including climate change and the green transition. From a demand perspective, green jobs will play an important role in green transition to reduce and limit energy and raw materials consumptions, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and waste and pollution, protect and restore ecosystems, and enable adaptation to climate change. But from a supply perspective, are countries ready to facilitate the transition?

Girls and women can play pivotal roles in addressing climate change in different domains, including in their households, communities and in the labor market, both formal and informal. These contributions can be accelerated by ensuring women have access to education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Why aren’t there more women in STEM?

Many of the myths and misconceptions about the absence of girls and women in STEM have been challenged and debunked. However, evidence shows that a key constraint for girls to advance in STEM fields is the “leaky pipeline” effect. The unweighted average of 137 countries from 2010 to 2019 shows a steady decrease in women’s enrollment rates in STEM education from primary to tertiary education, from 89.9 percent in primary education, down to 77.3 percent in secondary education, to 43.2 percent in tertiary education, of which only 26.8 percent are in STEM fields after graduation.

Globally, the share of female university graduates in STEM ranges from 15 to 45 percent, and their enrollments in STEM disciplines skew toward health, natural sciences, and mathematics. Engineering disciplines associated with health and environmental careers had the highest shares of female students. About 22 percent of engineering graduates with bachelor’s degrees were female in 2020. Even in India, which graduates the most engineers in the world and has a high share of female engineering students, just 32 percent of engineering graduates are women. In addition, their contribution to the GDP is relatively low, which could be attributed to the types of jobs that female STEM graduates engage in and the income they earn.

Helping women and girls succeed in STEM

The consistent loss of girls’ and women’s potential STEM talent throughout the education system and into the labor market reduces the diversity of perspectives and insights that drive technical progress and economic development. Policymakers can take some key steps to help promote STEM education and careers among women and girls. These efforts can help ensure their contributions to facilitating green transition can be more fully harnessed.

  • First, societies that understand STEM-related topics—such as climate change, clean water, and sustainability—are better able to respond to global challenges. This requires governments and their development partners to strengthen STEM education and advance women’s participation in the workforce. Programs should be designed for maximum impact to ease the attrition observed as girls and young women choose their educations, careers, and life paths. And programs should pay close attention to girls as they enroll in upper primary and lower secondary education, plan for and enroll in tertiary education, and when they enter and the early years in the labor force (including those not currently entering the labor force).
  • Second, policymakers need to overhaul technical and vocational education (TVET) systems to make them relevant to the labor market; improve the quality of the programs; enhance the role of industry professionals to serve as skill developers; promote more conducive governance mechanisms to facilitate the autonomy of TVET providers while balancing with accountability measures to communities and industries; facilitate with financing options to draw girls and boys to engage in skilling, reskilling and upskilling to make lifelong learning a norm; and to facilitate the process of learning for green jobs and attract more women to engage in STEM jobs for green transition.
  • Third, narrowing and eliminating the employment gender gap can help promote these careers among women and girls. With growing numbers of women earning college degrees in STEM fields, they still earn less than men for the same job, which may be contributing to lower overall employment rates than men.
  • Fourth, adopting deliberate strategies to facilitate a gender balanced workforce in STEM sectors, including the energy and renewables sector, can help encourage more women and girls to enter STEM fields. For example, partners in the South Asian Women in the Power Sector Professional Network (WePOWER) have achieved exceptional results by encouraging energy firms to adopt initiatives to attract, retain, and promote women engineers in the power sector, as well as women engineers with the capacity to innovate, apply new technologies, and contribute to green environment solutions.
  • Fifth, economic opportunities for women in STEM can be shifted by influencing norms and mindsets around women in technical fields, investing in career counseling and information about good jobs, access to mentoring, networking, and training opportunities, flexible childcare policies, and conducive corporate policies to promote women’s ascension in technical fields.

The green jobs of the future will favor skills and fields in STEM, areas where girls’ and women’s representation can bring faster action. The risks and cost of inaction will be high. A major risk is that women will be locked out of the jobs of the future without ensuring they have access to STEM education. The road to transformation is often long. It needs to be paved now by engendering access to STEM education and careers, to foster the role of girls and women as change agents and facilitate acceleration to green transition.

A forthcoming World Bank publication entitled Engendering Access to STEM Education and Careers in South Asia offers some detailed analyses and recommendations on the issues and how policymakers and stakeholders can stem the ‘leaky pipeline’ by investing in girls and women as agents of change for a green transition.


Hana Brixi

Global Director, Gender

Jaime Saavedra

Human Development Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank

Shobhana Sosale

Senior Education Specialist, World Bank

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