How some countries are bucking the tech gender gap

Last week, the International Telecommunications Union celebrated the annual Girls in ICT Day on the theme of digital skills for life. While girls still lag in information and communications technology skills in many countries, other nations are leading the way.

From the classroom to the workplace, girls and women remain under-represented in science,  technology, engineering and maths (Stem). While young women outnumber their male counterparts at universities, they make up only 35 per cent of Stem students globally. Post-graduation, the problem goes from bad to worse: worldwide, women hold less than 20 per cent of jobs in science and engineering.

But some countries are bucking that global trend. Take Tunisia. According to the World Bank, 55 per cent of Stem graduates in the north African country are women, compared to 22 per cent in Switzerland and 31 per cent globally. Over in Malaysia, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector employs almost the same number of women as it does men.

It has left researchers scratching their heads and wondering: what are these countries doing differently? And most importantly, what can others learn from them?

Last Thursday, on the international girls in ICT day, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) promoted the theme of “digital skills for life” to ensure that they have the necessary skills, support and confidence to advance in the field and beyond.

As the Geneva-based organisation celebrated the day from Harare, Zimbabwe, its secretary general, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the first woman to lead the agency, said: “Digital skills can change lives. Even basic digital skills training will help bridge the digital gender divide and are tools you need to become the tech creator and innovator and leaders of tomorrow.”

At the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women a month earlier, Bogdan-Martin called on three key actions to bridge the digital divide: get girls into Stem at an early age, ensure equal access to technologies and opportunities and give women a seat at the digital table, ensuring gender equality at organisations.

No easy fix

For over a decade, Jennifer DeBoer, an associate professor of engineering education at Purdue University in the US, has been working to answer those questions. “People are always surprised to hear about the differences in the gender gap,” she told Geneva Solutions in an email. “The stereotype of the ‘West’ being more gender equitable in every area is pervasive, as are the racist or xenophobic assumptions about other places being less equitable.”

DeBoer cautions that there is no single policy or set of policies that can simply be lifted from one country and applied to others. “There isn’t one easy fix,” she said. But she knows from her research that countries like Jordan – where even ten years ago, women made up 40 per cent of undergraduate engineering students in the two largest public universities – have a lot to teach.

Read also: How much substance is there to the UN’s gender parity goal?

Across the interviews she’s carried out with female engineers in countries that have narrowed or closed their Stem gender gap, she’s consistently heard a few things that they say have helped: family support to encourage girls to pursue studies in Stem fields; workplaces that are welcoming to all genders; and social structures that expose girls from a young age to Stem, both through formal education and in informal ways.

Together, these policies have helped create an environment where girls and women feel at home studying and working in Stem fields. “Where researchers have described engineering workplace identity in North American contexts as a hyper-masculine workspace, the Malaysian professional engineer identity described by women engineers is or can be feminine,” she concluded in one piece of research.

Creating a sense of belonging

Put simply, some countries steer girls away from Stem, sending subtle – but powerful – messages that it isn’t for them. For example, according to research from Unicef, more than half of illustrations in Indian maths and science textbooks depict boys, but they feature girls only six per cent of the time. That same research found that 50 per cent of parents in Chile, Hungary and Portugal expect their sons to have a career in Stem, but less than 20 per cent think their daughters will –expectations that girls can pick up on and internalise.

Many of the countries that have closed the Stem gender gap, by contrast, have gone out of their way to ensure girls and women feel like they belong in the field. In Malaysia, for example, any student who performs well in maths and science is automatically placed in a Stem stream at school, part of a broader national economic development policy that started over two decades ago. A UN-mandated report suggests the policy has played a big part in increasing the number of female Stem students and normalising the idea that both girls and boys are well-suited to Stem-related studies.

Meanwhile, in former Soviet-bloc countries, governments pursued policies to promote women in male-dominated sectors and supported continued employment by women through state-funded child-care facilities and maternity leaves.

The gender gap is not inevitable

Of course, even those countries that have gone a long way towards closing the tech gender gap still have more work to do. For example, while Jordan and Tunisia have made great strides in increasing educational opportunities for girls and women in Stem, they have had a harder time translating these gains into economic opportunities, as the OECD has reported.

Regardless, countries like Oman and Algeria, where just shy of 60 per cent of Stem graduates are women, still have an important lesson to offer: that while the gender gap in Stem is in many places deep and stubborn, it is not unavoidable.

“Extreme gender disparities are easy to naturalise,” Maria Charles, a professor of sociology at the University of California Santa Barbara in the US, said over email. “Constant exposure in everyday life makes the gendering feel inevitable, like common sense,” said Charles.

Her research into cross-national occupational segregation suggests that’s far from the case and that cultural and social factors, rather than innate gender differences, explain the gap.

That finding is both empowering – change can happen – and daunting. Overturning decades of entrenched gender norms and cultural stereotypes won’t happen overnight. But doing so could close the stubborn global gender gap in Stem.