OECD analyst Ester Basri says “women have made significant progress in science, in both the workforce and in education. But more needs to be done, for instance by promoting alternative career paths or entrepreneurship”.
One reason cited for the low number of women in top science positions is the difficulties women have reconciling profession and child rearing, including the demands for mobility early in research careers. Available data confirm that women scientists and engineers are less successful than their male counterparts in travelling along the academic career path. Just over one-third of US university faculty are women but this figure is much lower in EU countries and in Australia, as well as Korea (14.5%). Women also make up less than 20% of senior academic staff in the majority of EU countries. One effect of this is a scarcity of female role models among senior researchers and faculty to inspire other women to follow suit.
For larger graph, please click hereThe story is not all bad. The population of female researchers has increased. In the EU, the number of men in science and engineering increased by 4.9% from 1998 to 2002, while the number of women rose 4.2%. Although women account for only 30% of science and engineering graduates in OECD countries, this is an average figure. True, less than 30% of graduates in computing and 40% of graduates in the physical sciences are women, but look again, and more than 60% of life science graduates in many OECD countries are women. In other words, women tend to concentrate on fields such as biology, health, agriculture and pharmaceuticals, with low representation in physics, computing and engineering.
One problem is that most women researchers in OECD countries work in the public sector, and men find work in industry. Only 17.5% of women researchers in the EU and 6% of those in Japan work in the business sector, yet nearly two-thirds of women researchers in the US work in industry or business.
Government efforts plus new technologies and a growing push for diversity within industry are helping to close this gender gap. Some countries have implemented measures to increase the number of women graduates, and other countries have focused on keeping women in science after graduation.
“Childcare is often a problem. Even in countries where governments provide this benefit, women want more independence and authority in the lab”, says Ms Basri.
Most OECD countries are addressing the issue of women's participation in science to varying degrees. However, warns the OECD expert, “a genderbased approach is not the only solution. After all, day care also affects young fathers. We need a consistent approach. We need to understand why women stay away from science and research in general”. AB
For more on OECD work on women in science, contact Ester.Basri@oecd.org
- OECD (2006), Women in Scientific Careers: Unleashing the Potential, Paris.
- Rhea Wessel (2005), “Breaking through the lab-glass ceiling”, Science/Business, 27 October 2005.
- “Women in Science, Engineering and Technology: Strategies for a Global Workforce”, OECD meeting held in September 2006, see www.oecd.org/sti/stpolicy
©OECD Observer No. 257, October 2006