3 charts about gender equality every college student (and professor) should know


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The world is focused on the COVID-19 crisis and response to ensure we protect frontline health workers and strengthen our social protection systems, but at the World Bank we are also continuing with our efforts to safeguard progress on women’s economic opportunity over the long term. One important area is the choices students make about their field of study, which plays a role in how women fare later on in the labor market.  

As we are working from home, we connect with colleagues and share ideas virtually. Here is the conversation that I had with my colleague, Alicia Hammond.

Andy: Hi, Alicia, how are things going with you? Nice to catch up virtually! August 12 is International Youth Day and for young people, tertiary education is one of the top issues on their mind, like which university to attend and which study major to choose. Let’s talk about that issue.    

Alicia: Thanks, Andy. We have seen more women enrolling in universities, which is a good sign. But there are some fields where women are still underrepresented, such as computer science and engineering. A key question to explore is, "What drives these gaps?"

Andy: That’s a good question, Alicia! Let me think about it through my personal experience. When I was in college in Thailand, which was a long time ago, there were more women than men in my incoming class. I remember that the ratio of female-to-male students in economics major was two to one.

Alicia: Quite different in my case because I went to a women’s college, which was an amazing experience. It was not unusual to see talented and hardworking women exploring their passion in various fields—including the sciences. I actually went to the university wanting to be a physicist, but calculus crushed me, so I switched to international relations. Now, over 15 years later, after researching women’s underrepresentation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, I see that this is a common occurrence. And I didn’t even have to contend with a male-dominated environment, where there might have been harmful gender stereotypes about women in these fields.

Andy: That reminds me—in Thailand, there were very few women in engineering but nearly one-to-one ratio for medicine. I wonder what that ratio is now and what’s going on in other countries.

Alicia: Yes, I wonder too. I’m especially curious about what’s happening in STEM fields at the regional and country levels.

university student in Thailand
University students in Thailand. Photo Credit: ILO -Asia Pacific, CC 3.0

Here’s what we found from the latest data from 149 countries compiled by UNESCO, which we retrieved from the World Bank Gender Data Portal. Chart 1 shows to what extent educational fields are female-dominated, neutral, or male-dominated in these countries—with the number of countries noted in each bar. How did we determine if a field is female-dominated? We recorded that when the female share of graduates in the field is 5 percentage points higher than the male share. For male-dominated fields, we recorded that when the female share of graduates in the program is 5 percentage points less than the male share, and neutral if the absolute difference between female and male shares of graduates in the is less than 5 percentage points.

My hunch was right, it seems that engineering field is still vastly male-dominated in almost all countries. It is also interesting when we look at the rest of STEM fields; science is not as nearly male-dominated. Science is male-dominated in 77 countries but female-dominated in 56 countries.

Chart 1: Education fields and concentration of male and female students around the world

Chart: Education fields and concentration of male and female student
Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Retrieved from the World Bank Gender Data Portal.
Note: The total number of countries may not always add up to 149 countries because data about certain education fields may not be available from some countries.

There is quite a variation across countries. Looking at a map is a great way to understand the data quickly and to see regional patterns.

Map 1: Gender dominated areas of education

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Retrieved from the World Bank Gender Data Portal.
[feel free to slide the button for maps of other education fields.]

Chart 2: Percentage of male and female students by areas of education and country

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Retrieved from the World Bank Gender Data Portal

Andy: In Thailand, the gender gap is still large in engineering field. Looking at the data around the world, I couldn’t help but wonder: why is a field like science male-dominated in some countries and female-dominated in others? And why engineering, a STEM field, is vastly male-dominated but basic science is not?

Alicia: Well our team just finished a new report focused on women and girls in STEM that delves into these issues, so stay tuned! What we see is that although girls are just as capable as boys in these subjects, there are stereotypes and biases that are apparent—in classrooms, in curricula, among teachers, in the media, and even among parents. And these result in gender gaps in STEM studies and in STEM jobs. These factors often communicate to girls from an early age that math and science might not be appropriate for them. In many cases, girls often internalize these harmful messages and that reduces their confidence, aspirations, and interest in these fields.

We would like to hear from you about your thoughts after seeing these data. Do you have answers for my questions above? What do you think about the situation in your country? Leave your comments below! Thank you for joining our conversation.