Mapping Gender Balance in STEM Internationally

The Gender Scan survey provides a unique vehicle to understanding gender dynamics in the STEM pipeline across the globe. Here, key findings from Gender Scan’s survey on students compares results from the United States with those from Europe.

By Claudine Schmuck, General Manager, Global Contact

Launched in 2008, Gender Scan remains the only biennial survey that provides facts and figures on gender balance in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) from education to employment. After performing research on new technologies for McKinsey & Co. in the United States, teaching new technologies of information and communication (NTIC) at the Sorbonne for 11 years, and serving the European Commission as an expert for more than 15 years on topics related to innovation, I reached a simple conclusion: We were missing data that could provide us with a global understanding of the dynamics at work.

Background

We knew about the issue of the so-called “leaky pipeline,” the process by which an increasing proportion of women drop out from STEM studies and, later, STEM sectors of the workforce. But we missed the data that would provide a better grasp of the situation and identify key levers to enable change, making it possible for more women to step up in technology. To achieve this, Gender Scan relies on two sets of data — one that is public and another that is private. The public set compiles data from global public sources, such as UNESCO, the International Labour Organization, the World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and generates key indicators of secondary and tertiary education, and employment. The private set is derived from Gender Scan’s global online surveys. Launched in 2016, until 2021 these focused exclusively on assessing the situation of women in STEM jobs, compared with that of men. We have identified some key gaps, for instance, in the area of flextime or remote work, and have built awareness from decision-makers to support change.

The added value of Gender Scan is that it collects longitudinal data — scanning female experience in STEM from adolescence until working life — across the world, thanks to the active collaboration of our partners in various countries, such as SWE. This enables us to develop benchmark analyses, measuring and comparing women’s and men’s situations in STEM in distinct geographic locations, in primary and higher education and in the workplace.

We are hence able to produce regional and national statistics, and precise where a certain organization or country stands in relation to its geographic region, to the average of developing and developed countries, or to other countries and regions concerning distinct aspects. Furthermore, the comparative analysis provides important perspectives and insights to understand what works and what doesn’t. Consequently, it enables us to identify areas where there is room for improvement and potential levers of change to advance women and girls in STEM.

In 2021, we moved a step further, opening the survey to two new target groups of respondents: teenagers and university students. We also have broadened our scope. Thanks to the support of French telecommunications corporation the Orange group (https://www.orange.com/en), we were able to share our knowledge and provide key results of our data to a greater number of partners worldwide. We succeeded and grew from 80 partners in 2019 to 200 in 2021, among which we were most honored to welcome SWE. Thanks to all our partners worldwide, in 2021 we reached more than 30,000 respondents from 117 countries.

In this article, we share some of the findings of our survey on students, comparing results from the U.S. with those from Europe. It is important, however, to read these proportions carefully, as the interpretations of data for the U.S. are limited by the total number of responding students in the U.S., which is fewer than 500. This provides for a margin of error of 6.3%; thus, the following analysis for the U.S. should at this point be considered hypothesis. The opposite is true for our Western Europe results, where the 2,616 responses collected across 23 countries make the results more representative and allow for a 1.8% margin of error, which is acceptable. We do hope that more responses from students in our next edition, in 2023, will allow for more complete and robust analysis.

Barriers to enter STEM studies

The preliminary analysis of data from the U.S. and Western Europe would seem to indicate some acute contrasts. The first one is that American women appear more likely to have a tougher time both getting into STEM studies and during their STEM studies than their European counterparts.

While 65% of women currently studying STEM in America declare that they have been discouraged to enter these studies (60% in information and communication technologies), this applies to only 45% of women in STEM studies and 49% in ICT in Europe. Top influencers, and “discouragers,” are teachers and families on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean. The discouraging “arguments” most frequently quoted range from such stereotyped and sexist comments as “STEM is no field for women,” to doubts and explicit comments about their “not being good enough,” undermining their capacity for a STEM-related career.

It is not for girls:

“Many teachers in my high school discouraged me from studying STEM. Despite my high GPA and excellence in STEM related fields, I had teachers discourage me from majoring in engineering based on my bubbly and fun personality. I also encountered people who would discourage me from going into STEM who would say things like, ‘Oh, well your husband wouldn’t want you to be smarter or make more money than him.’ ‘Women should not go into the STEM field.’ ‘Guys won’t want to date you if you’re a nerd.’ Just to name a few.”
– 24-year-old woman, U.S., mathematics, engineering, transformation and production industry

“It’s for geeks, it’s not for women.”
– 19-year-old woman, Belgium, computer sciences

“It’s not for girls; it’s impossible I’ve been told.”
21-year-old woman, Spain, engineering, construction

You’re not good enough:

“Several high school teachers told me I shouldn’t study STEM since I wasn’t the strongest math student; recommended I study writing instead.”
– 25-year-old woman, U.S., engineering, transformation and production industry, environment, sustainable development, ecology

“I got convinced I couldn’t do math after getting a B+.”
– 20-year-old woman, U.S., engineering, transformation and production industry

“Your grades are not good enough.”
– 23-year-old woman, France, engineering/construction

“My lack of mathematics skills, people in my surroundings, relatives, and some teachers in high school among other(s), suggesting I change fields when I brought up studying physics.”
– 22-year-old woman, Spain, physics

These elements point to concerning trends. First, gender stereotypes persist regarding skills and roles in society that lead a non-negligible proportion of people to associate some jobs and sectors with men and others with women. Secondly, the assumption that a professional orientation toward STEM in general and ICT in particular requires, if not genius, at least nothing short of the very best grades in maths and sciences. This puts off motivated and passionate pupils who lack confidence in themselves and/or top marks.

Both points are even more serious if we consider that the women responding to the student survey are currently pursuing degrees in STEM and tech, having chosen to do so despite this discouragement. It is difficult to measure, but not difficult to imagine, how many women could be in these fields but have been discouraged by such harmful reasoning.

Women studying STEM or ICT in the U.S. tend to face a tougher environment
When asked about their general feeling in their STEM studies, twice the proportion of American women (71%) as of their European homologues (35%) feel they are in competition with their peers. Similar gaps are present in ICT degrees, reaching 69% of American female students compared with 42% of European ones. Furthermore, a lower proportion of American women studying STEM (68%) and ICT (60%) affirmed to feel settled in their studies, compared with 83% and 84%, respectively, in Europe.

A closer look at the factors that make students dissatisfied with their studies can give some insights to explain such disparities concerning their general feeling. While the atmosphere and relations is pointed to as a problem by 15% of respondents in STEM and 21% in tech in Western Europe, figures in the U.S. rise to 53% and 57%, respectively. Sexism and lack of gender balance also register important differences: The former is a problem to 26% of STEM and 32% of ICT students in Europe, against 64% of STEM and 49% of ICT students in America, while the latter perturbs 36% of students in Europe and 70% in the U.S., for both sectors. Last, but not least, the proportion of dissatisfaction with stress levels amounts to 67% of European and 85% of American female respondents in STEM, and 75% of European and 89% of American women in tech.

However, not every comparison of the Gender Scan 2021 students’ data across the North Atlantic puts the U.S. under a less favorable light. When it comes to motivations for choosing the studies they currently pursue, 92% of STEM and 89% of digital-fields female students in the U.S. claim “the potential impact of their job on society,” as opposed to 74% and 80% of Europeans, respectively. Similarly, “the power to build and transform” is cited by 94% of STEM and 80% of ICT female students, and by only 75% and 73% of them in Europe, respectively, in contrast. Finally, the many employment opportunities motivated 92% of American women studying STEM, versus 75% of Europeans, and 97% of American women studying ICT degrees, versus 68% of their European homologues.

These numbers suggest that, in the U.S. more than in Europe, STEM and tech jobs are presented successfully to young women as having positive impacts on the community, providing tools for interesting operations, positioning graduates in a blooming labor market.

Similarities: key influencers and access to technology

Some results of the survey also reveal striking similarities in the experiences of American and European women when choosing their studies and during these studies. When we asked them about the factors that most influenced them in their career choices, the top factors in proportion turned out to be the same: relatives, teachers at school, and access to technology at school. This seems to underline the importance of working together with parents and teachers to attract girls into STEM fields, as well as of having schools well equipped to introduce pupils to the possibilities that cutting-edge technology offers them in terms of work.

Furthermore, the inquiry into the level of satisfaction with their training indicates that more than 95% of respondents, in tech and traditional STEM fields, are satisfied with their choices and current study paths. These are the kinds of data that may be useful to underline in campaigns to attract girls into STEM: Despite all obstacles and hardships, a very high proportion of women who pursue STEM studies are satisfied with them. The reasons are, again, similar between European and American women, though reaching slightly higher proportions of the latter: The development of new skills pleases more than 95% of respondents in both regions; the possibility of working in a diversified range of sectors, more than 85% of respondents; and the challenge involved in their studies, more than 90% of Americans and 80% of Europeans.

Future steps and the value of Gender Scan for partners

Findings and comparisons will be more solid if we have a higher number of answers from the U.S. in the next edition. Also, our global perspective will be greatly reinforced once we have more respondents. Therefore, we invite you to spread the word about and take part in the Gender Scan 2023 survey — on teenagers, university students, workers, and entrepreneurs — to map the situation of women and girls in STEM all over the globe. The survey is scheduled to launch March 8, 2023, and receive answers online over a span of a couple of months. Meanwhile, more data are available on our website, genderscan.org, and via our twitter account, @genderscan.

In addition to the previously cited core topics and global regions, specific modules can be tailor-made in the frame of the Gender Scan survey, and particular countries, continents, sectors, or companies can be studied separately. For instance, a French organization commissioned analysis focused on the added value of corporate women-led networks in the last edition, later presented by its president and the founder of Gender Scan to the French Ministry of Gender Equality and to the Ministry of Digital Transformation. Likewise, SWE has commissioned Gender Scan to conduct a study on female engineers in India, to be produced in 2023.

For more on women in STEM and tech, stay tuned and don’t hesitate to get in touch at contact@genderscan.org.

Claudine Schmuck, founder and managing director of Global Contact, launched the global edition of Gender Scan in 2016. Graduated from the Institute of Political Science in Paris and from Columbia University in New York, she is highly valued by the public sector as an expert for the French Ministry of Economy and Finance, and the European Commission. She also contributed to international program developments for IT and media companies pertaining to NTIC. She taught new digital technologies for 11 years at the Sorbonne and is the author of Women in STEM Disciplines, published by Springer in 2017.

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