We need more girls and women in science. What are three ways in which we can support them?

How can systems attract and retain more women in STEM? Photo: Shutterstock
How can systems attract and retain more women in STEM? Photo: Shutterstock

Choosing one’s path in life should not be limited by prejudice or hindered by a less than supportive environment to thrive. Girls and boys should be supported to develop their talents to the fullest and without the constraints often imposed by gender stereotypes.  However, women are significantly less likely to enroll in many of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, with the exception of life sciences. In fact, women still account for only 28 percent of engineering graduates and 40 percent of graduates in computer science, and in fields such as artificial intelligence only 1 in 5 professionals is female. This seems counterintuitive as girls do as well or better than boys on science and math in standardized tests such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) or TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which is why it is relevant to identify and address the main factors that deter girls and women from pursuing careers in science. With the rapidly growing global digital economy, it is imperative that deliberate policies are put in place to ensure opportunities for both girls and boys to acquire STEM-related competencies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how important women’s contributions to science are but has also highlighted gender disparities.  On one hand women scientists and professionals such as Professor Sarah Gilbert, leading the development of the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine against COVID-19, and many others have been stories of success. On the other, the pandemic has had negative impacts on girls’ and women’s schooling and employment outcomes across the globe. While early evidence is mixed and emerging, studies have found cases of learning losses higher for girls than for boys (South Africa and Mexico) and lower rates of return to schooling for adolescent girls (Kenya). Studies have also found women more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic.  In the United States, the employment rate of mothers dropped by 7 percent and their labor-force participation rate fell by 4 percent. There have also been negative impacts on female researchers, especially those who have had to care for children. A 2020 online survey among 170 academics in the US found that women spent 43 hours per week on childcare, reported having to work outside business hours, and were more likely to take paid or unpaid leave to provide childcare. These challenges show how important is to both attract and retain women in STEM fields and that a change in school, university, household, and workplace ecosystems is crucial.

How can systems attract and retain more women in STEM?

  1. Open the pathway: Dismantle biases that prevent girls from dreaming of a career in science

First, remove gender biases in learning materials. Such materials often portray male examples of professionals such as engineers and scientists while women are more likely to be depicted as teachers, nurses, etc.  As people’s aspirations are framed from an early age, it is important to have a variety in representation and in role models.  Research suggests also that strengthening STEM curricula and linking it to real world situations (using interactive experiences, project-based learning, and other strategies) tends to appeal more to girls rather than using more traditional methods.

Second, parents and teachers need to be allies. Between 8 percent and 20 percent of mathematics teachers in Latin America reported that they believed mathematics is easier for boys and research shows that parents in some regions of the world show a greater preference for sons to work in STEM. Early support and nourishment for a girl’s (in equal measure to that of a boy’s) natural interest in science should be provided at home and at schools.

The World Bank’s Adolescent Girls Initiative for Learning and Empowerment (AGILE) project to improve secondary education opportunities among girls in participating states in Nigeria, will provide digital literacy trainings and financial incentives such as scholarships to further support girls’ retention and completion of secondary school.

  1. Provide Support along the road: Mentorship, skills development, and networking opportunities are key

At the tertiary level and beyond, strong mentorships and networks promote persistence in science fields among undergraduates. Additionally, evidence suggests that women who have the support of a person or organization with influence in their field are more likely to ask for pay increases (and get them) and to experience higher levels of career satisfaction. Male colleagues also need to be allies, as dismantling gender stereotypes concerns and benefits all. For instance, female engineers were more likely to be partners or senior executives than male employees when they were supported by male mentors. Additionally, engaging a wider ecosystem is relevant as the private sector can play an important role by providing financial support through scholarships, networks, grants, and other initiatives, providing training focused on digital and other STEM skills, and offering internship opportunities targeting secondary school girls and undergrads.

The World Bank’s Skills and Training Enhancement Project (STEP) in Bangladesh has invested in 45 polytechnic institutes to improve female inclusion and deliver industry-relevant skills results with over 40,000 low-income female students receiving stipends, and female enrolment jumping from 5 percent to 14 percent.

  1. Retain women in the workforce by removing obstacles in their pathways: Improve employment prospects and retention policies

Women in science are significantly underrepresented in the work force, are paid less, and have fewer chances of obtaining promotions. Start-ups led by women received just 2.3% of venture capital in 2020. Increasing participation in the labor force is fundamental and strategies to close the gender gap include removing barriers to recruit women (these can be legal or institutional) for instance in some countries women still are not allowed to perform jobs deemed as hazardous.  

Policies that encourage retention such as flexible work, paid family leave, and childcare support, can benefit both women, men, and employers and are particularly crucial during and after the pandemic. A review of 22 studies finds positive impact of institutional childcare (increase in access to care, an increase in care hours, or a reduction in the cost of care) on maternal labor market outcomes in lower- and-middle-income countries.

Moving forward

Now, more than ever, it is a critical time to support girls and women to pursue their dreams and challenge the visible but also the subtle barriers they face to thrive in STEM fields. Today, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is commemorated to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.  Changing mindsets and creating a more supportive ecosystem across homes, schools, universities, and workplaces supported by institutional change and targeted policies is a complex process. A combination of short- and long-term measures is needed. Societies cannot afford to lose the contributions of millions of girls and women towards innovation and technology.

Acknowledgments: Gratitude towards our colleagues Cristobal Cobo, Marjorie Chinen, and Iñaki Sanchez Ciarrusta from the World Bank’s EdTech team for providing comments to previous versions of this blog. 


Raja Bentaouet Kattan

Advisor to the Education Global Practice

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