Priyanka and Praveen checks the water samples collected from different parts of Bangalore.

The world needs more women scientists

Women are significantly underrepresented in science, making up only 28% of all researchers globally — and the disparity is even greater in the fields of natural sciences and engineering.
October 23, 2017

Women are significantly underrepresented in science, making up only 28% of all researchers globally — and the disparity is even greater in the fields of natural sciences and engineering. Although the number of women pursuing doctoral and post-doctoral studies has grown, a much higher drop-out rate means that this has not translated into greater numbers of employed women researchers. This steep attrition rate, coined the “leaky pipeline”, occurs predominantly at the doctoral and early-career stages.

Women scientists, particularly in low and middle-income countries, face many hurdles in reaching their full potential as researchers and leaders in academia and industry. Those who persevere in their scientific careers encounter numerous obstacles in the workplace, such as part-time and precarious work, lower pay, higher teaching and administrative workload, and a challenging work-life balance.

In addition to such unfriendly work environments, women are often judged against unrealistic standards. They are expected to reach peak productivity at the onset of their careers, which coincides with their child-bearing years. Many cannot travel as extensively as their male peers because of cultural restrictions with respect to mobility and family responsibilities. This limits opportunities for women scientists to attend international conferences and engage in collaborations. By extension, this compromises their chances of publishing in world-class journals and of securing funding — a further detriment to their future career prospects.

Women scientists who venture outside of academia, for example in the tech sector, face similar challenges: difficult work-life balance, sexist work environments, and limited opportunities to climb the corporate ladder. Generally speaking, in both academia and industry, a lack of role models, mentors, and support networks to guide junior peers leaves women scientists isolated in confronting what is a shared challenge.

Why does this matter?

Gender barriers in scientific careers and the underrepresentation of women in academia have implications for the quality of research and its applications for women and other underprivileged groups.

Research findings consistently identify that diversity among researchers leads to higher quality research. Varied experiences and worldviews nurture critical thinking, thereby enriching the range of questions posed and the solutions developed.

The knowledge that women have acquired through gender roles may lead them to identify instances where technologies, product design, medical treatments, and other innovations are or are not well suited to their needs.

In the development context, increasing the participation of women in research introduces gender awareness into the research and innovation processes, which may lead to different outcomes and better solutions. For example, research in Tanzania shows that because women are responsible for fetching water, they have an improved knowledge of water sources in their local areas. Teams of civil engineers relied on this knowledge to determine where they would place wells for better water yields. A World Bank report that analyzed 122 water projects found that involving women made water/sanitation projects six to seven times more effective.

How we’re tackling the problem

IDRC strives to enable women to enter, excel, and become leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The Centre currently supports three flagship women in STEM programs delivered through the Foundations for Innovation program.

Since its inception in 2003, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) has produced more than 1,500 graduates, approximately one-third of them women. AIMS is committed to increasing the pipeline of women trained in advanced mathematical science. In addition, the AIMS Women in STEM Initiative promotes a pan-African dialogue, addresses the need for data on women’s participation and leadership, and promotes a holistic approach to gender equality in STEM.

The Organization of Women in Science for the Developing World is a cutting-edge CA$15 million fellowship program jointly funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and IDRC. It is designed to support 140 doctoral and 60 early-career women scientists in low and middle-income countries. The program provides women scientists with the opportunity and skills to become leaders in their fields, manage important research projects, and act as role models for the next generation.

A CA$1.5 million IDRC grant to the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social will fund up to 20 postdoctoral fellowships for Indigenous Mexican women pursuing studies in STEM. These fellows will have the opportunity to perform world-class research, develop professionally, engage with communities, and become role models for other young Indigenous women pursuing graduate and undergraduate STEM studies in Mexico and Central America. Ultimately, these postdoctoral fellowships will enable Indigenous women researchers and students to launch their scientific careers and use their knowledge and skills in STEM disciplines to benefit local communities through innovation and training.

Through capacity-building initiatives such as these, IDRC seeks to empower women to pursue scientific careers at advanced levels and to tackle the systemic barriers that impair their career trajectories.

To tackle such complex gender obstacles, we:

  • support initiatives that increase the pipeline of women in STEM;
  • build the leadership and business skills of women scientists;
  • fund research programs spearheaded by women scientists;
  • support networks and mentorship schemes;
  • support research aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of gender barriers in STEM;
  • encourage gender-sensitive approaches in research.

Ultimately, IDRC seeks to ensure that its programming takes a sustainable and comprehensive approach to close existing gender gaps and to support women researchers on the path to success.

Photo: IDRC / Atul Loke