Gender Equality in STEM: A Priority for a Sustainable and Inclusive Recovery

Gender inequality is a barrier to sustainable development and to building a fairer society. The COVID-19 crisis has done nothing but worsen the situation and it has had a negative impact on women’s life. According to the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC), during 2020 there was a setback of over a decade in terms of progress achieved in labor market participation for women in our region. According to the report, the employment rate for women was 46% in 2020 (compared to 69% for men) and the unemployment rate for women reached 12% in 2020, a percentage that rises to 22.2% if we consider the rate of women participation in the labor force in 2019. It is also estimated that 118 million of Latin American women are living in poverty, 23 million more than in 2019. Furthermore, many women had to leave their jobs to meet the care demands at home, a responsibility that still lies disproportionately on women. 

In this context, it is urgent to strengthen the employment policies and ensure women participation in the driving sectors of economy. The COVID-19 crisis accelerated and caused changes in the current labor world, which changes had been anticipated for years. It is expected that half of the existing jobs will disappear by 2050 –according to the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s projections in 2017– and 75% of the jobs will be related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), according to Unesco data for 2018. Thus, access to new technologies is essential today to live in this new reality.

However, only 22% of the people working in the field of artificial intelligence in the world are women (World Economic Forum, 2018) and they barely represent 12% of those working in machine learning (Unesco, 2019). Consequently, if closing the gender gap in STEM is not urgently addressed, then such gap will become wider during the fourth industrial revolution.

It may be observed in almost all countries of the world that, while the number of women enrolling in university courses of studies increases, many women still leave their studies at the highest educational levels, which are those required to start professional careers as researchers. The gap becomes evident at the doctorate level and increases during the transition between university and the labor market, where less than 30% of researchers are women, as surveyed by UN Women in 2019, according to statistics by Unesco, in Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the Latin America and the Caribbean Region.

Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the few regions that has achieved parity in research, where an average 45% are women. In spite of that, there are significant differences by countries: in Colombia, for instance, more than 55% of their researchers are women, whereas in Mexico, Chile or Peru that percentage is under 34%. However, it is paradoxical that countries with higher levels of gender equality do not always have a higher share of women following STEM courses of studies. That is the case of Panama or Peru, where the percentage of university graduates in TICs is 49,6% and 43,9% respectively, whereas Chile and Brazil are on the opposite end with 12,7% and 14,6%, respectively, always according to the report by UN Women.

In this context of technology changes, the situation generated by the pandemic exposed and aggravated the gaps in digital economy. Currently, there are 165 million fewer women than men owning mobiles; only 54% of women worldwide are connected to mobile Internet (data from the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 of GSMA) and according to the Unesco, only 30% of women who study do so in STEM fields. These conclusive figures show that this new scenario could be distorted by biases and prejudices of designers, programmers, and/or creators who would be perpetuating historical discriminatory behaviors and discriminatory biases in their designs and solutions. 

Therefore, it is crucial to foster inclusive digital transformation processes that guarantee women access to technologies, promote their skills and reverse the socioeconomic barriers women face, so that we may strengthen their economic autonomy. In this line, UN Women and CEPAL have established a regional partnership that proposes a basic digital basket, with a laptop, a smart phone and a tablet with access to data, in order to help women who have been excluded from digital economy have access to connectivity.

In addition to promoting that more girls and young women take courses of study related to these jobs of the future, UN Women highlights three lines of action that will be crucial for socioeconomic recovery and where the business community plays an essential role: furthering policies on co-responsibility between men and women; prioritizing inclusive and sustainable purchases giving priority to women-led businesses and enterprises in their supply chains; and reducing the digital gap and ensuring decent working conditions when remote work is established. 

Only putting the rights of women at the core of socioeconomic recovery may we create more stable and equal economies with trained and diverse human capital. Digital innovations keep on transforming the world in which we work, posing challenges and offering opportunities to unleash the women’s potential to create a better future. In the face of all the challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, it will be necessary to use all the existing talent and, to that end, societies need women to be present. Without the equal participation of women, we will not be able to achieve a sustainable and inclusive employment in Latin America.

  1. ILO, 2017
  2. UNESCO, 2018
  3.  WEF, 2018
  4. UNESCO, 2019
  5. UN Women, 2019. “Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the Latin America and the Caribbean Region,” with data from UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS, July 2019)
  6. UN Women, 2019. “Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the Latin America and the Caribbean Region”, with data from UIS (July 2019.
  7. GSMA, “The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020” 
  8.  GSMA, “The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020”
  9. UNESCO, 2019

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