Old Structures, Missing Systems: Why does gender inequity in STEM persist?

Calling for attention to gender inequity in STEM is inadequate—real systemic change has to take place if economies and companies are serious about making gender equity materialise. Banner image: Shutterstock/Lano Lan
Old Structures, Missing Systems: Why does gender inequity in STEM persist?

This article is part of a series in which experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address for the OECD the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Advances in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) come fast and furious because they have implications on the continued existence of living things, funding, profit-gains and power. For instance, the hegemonic “publish or perish” culture in STEM academia persists as research labs vie for the multi-million-dollar grants to build research facilities and maintain their academic standing. No economy, company or research lab already invested in the STEM race could afford to lose out. Inevitably, this leads to parallel expectations in staff quality measured in terms of up-to-date knowledge, innovative mindsets, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. All of these have been identified as STEM competencies of the 21st century.

Let us not bother with the term gender inequality when gender inequity remains a tall order for many economies around the world. The die-hard issues of gender inequity have been discussed at length in OECD Forum events, and some of its perpetrators include the COVID-19 pandemic and digital transformations of economies to stay competitive in this hyperconnected world. History has shown that whenever major changes such as a pandemic, war or economic transformations take place, those with the least capital have been disadvantaged more because they have fewer resources to respond to the new challenges. The underprivileged becomes further marginalized and eventually falls out of the socio-economic equation.

The "second sex", a term French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir coined to underscore the uneven treatment women received in the 1940s, still resonates with women in the 21st century. While economies look forward to STEM advances that drive efficiency, growth, competition and security, this could come at the expense of gender equity. Calls for women to join the STEM workforce while also contributing to higher birthrates—especially in highly competitive Asian economies with decreasing populations—do not go hand-in-hand.


Read more: The Power of Youth: Achieving a diverse workforce through equal opportunities for young men and women by Annabel May, Apprentice, Business Administration


Oftentimes, success indicators rely on figures such the number of women enrolling in degree programmes, graduation rates and expression of interest in STEM careers. However, these statistics cannot explain why there are still relatively fewer women in these fields. This phenomenon, the “leaky STEM pipeline”, suggests a quiet and uncontrolled dropout of women from STEM education and careers: women who are already in STEM, or are contemplating a career in it, face the harsh reality of dropping out voluntarily or being removed, isolated or ignored whenever a new challenge is presented. However, this metaphor also illuminates the reductionist policies and efforts that are not constructive in addressing women’s concerns in STEM. To achieve success in gender equity, one should perhaps first understand the complexities of women’s experiences in the “pipeline”, that is, the different types of current flows within it rather than both ends.

How have women in STEM been navigating the intersectionality of STEM and society? The answer is: in a dyschronous manner.

In the early years of schooling, girls are just as excited about learning STEM as the boys because it is experiential and about making discovery; children are naturally curious about the things that happen around them. Peer influence also become an important factor in their lives, and as social beings are likely to follow what their friends like and talk about to participate in social interactions. This is also the time when children will associate themselves with the traits and characters in fictional cartoons and in the process and start developing colour-coded lenses (boys like blue and girls like pink). In school, girls are told that they can do as well as the boys in STEM, but when they enter universities they become immersed in male-dominated STEM departments; when they go to work, they find themselves being a minority at a male-dominated workplace. People congratulate them for "making it into" the highly competitive industry and/or raise eyebrows when people hear that they are engineers. At the workplace, they worry about presenting themselves as weak in case they lose the opportunity to be included in important projects. The dyschronous experience described here may resonate with many women in STEM.

Clearly, simply calling for attention to gender inequity in STEM is inadequate. If economies and companies are serious about making gender equity in STEM materialise—given the high stakes for economies' growth, social and personal well-being—then real systemic change has to take place.

During the pandemic, many economies have resorted to an "economy-first" policy. Although such moves are controversial (and it is not within the scope of this article to discuss this issue), it is a fact that such policies have helped to create more jobs for locals and pushed governments and companies to invest in upskilling and reskilling programmes. Taking a leaf out of this book, if the public and private sectors are serious about gender equity then policies or guidelines could be implemented to ensure minimal, if not equal, representation of women in STEM companies. After all, there is a dialectical relationship between power and knowledge. The policy should apply across the various levels including management, research and development, human resource and administrative departments. This would circumvent the problem of having policy effects being prematurely aborted.

Resolute changes at systemic levels are necessary for the currently malfunctioning and leaky STEM pipeline to be re-routed, so as to offer more opportunities for growth. Examples of important strategic STEM positions include boards deciding on promotion and tenure, granting agencies, journal editorial board members and committees in associations. Incentivising companies to do so, in the form of grants or tax reliefs that go back into initiatives that directly contribute to women’s STEM capacity-building, could reap sustainable and longer-term outcomes and outputs. Clearly, the STEM pipeline is not so linear after all.

Find out more about the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Find out more about the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)



Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19  Gender Equality Digital Inclusion Future of Education & Skills