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The International Month of Women and Girls in Science is an opportunity not only to reflect on the state of their participation in scientific studies but to promote social awareness about the importance of achieving equal access for women to decent work in an industry such as STEM, with enormous demands nowadays.
According to the United Nations, women only represent 28 percent of engineering graduates and 40 percent of IT and computing professionals, which are most of the fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In emerging areas like artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals is a woman. Additionally, Coursera’s 2022 Global Skills report highlighted that despite increases in women enrollment rates in STEM courses in Latin America since 2019, they remain overrepresented within human competency fields (“business psychology” or “human management”). At the same time, fields with less female representation coincide with those emerging and highly demanded technological skills (“operating systems” or machine learning), areas with a high potential for job returns and fewer risks of automation.
Women were one of the most affected demographics by the pandemic, which also magnified the gaps within the most vulnerable groups, especially in rural and marginal urban areas. Young women were one of the groups most affected by the labor market demand drop through high unemployment, job informality, and overwhelming care-based demands. In 2020, for example, the female participation rate in Latin America and the Caribbean was 47 percent. Compared to 2019, these figures presented an unprecedented decline of five percentage points. This meant a significant setback in female labor participation which had increased from 41 percent in the early nineties to 52.3 percent in 2019.
Although gender gaps in STEM remain significant, the pandemic has highlighted the power of technologies to leverage greater democratization of opportunities. The emergency has become a catalyst for innovations, a large-scale experiment in educational practice transformations. For example, from 2020 to 2021, female enrollment on Coursera increased significantly – accelerating a trend and making Latin America the region with the highest percentage of learners on the platform without a college degree (46 percent). Through online learning, more women can have access to new skills and knowledge, which directly impact their long-term personal, economic, and social development.
Given the post-pandemic multisectoral efforts to recover learning and regional governments’ interests in promoting knowledge-based, inclusive, and sustainable economies, the STEM sector has become an attractive market for the insertion of new professional profiles and career development. This industry can be considered a gateway to new job opportunities leveraged by remote and flexible work, strengthening skills through online learning and transnational digital communities.
To explore these challenges and frameworks to address them, the Inter-American Dialogue, in collaboration with Coursera, hosted a webinar on The Future of Women in STEM – Challenges and Opportunities in LAC. The event brought regional leaders such as Kira Gidrón (CEO of Lumni), Mariana Costa (CEO and co-founder of Laboratoria), Nicole Amaral (Coursera’s Skills Transformation Leader for Latin America and the Caribbean), and Genaro Hurtado (CEO of Brivé Solutions). We introduce eight recommendations below based on the event’s discussions. We believe these are contributions to a public debate as part of a larger collective effort to reduce gender gaps and magnify the future of women in the region.
Pre-tertiary education: The inaccurate approach at this stage of the educational process can alienate and cause a lack of self-confidence in women. It is essential to invest in an integral and holistic education model that eradicates prejudices and stereotypes, thus deconstructing gender-based roles and norms.
1. Misinformation and home culture are limiting factors in early childhood development. The parenting practices that girls traditionally receive could be conditioned and immersed in a culture of stereotypes reproduced by parents and caregivers. This directly affects their expectations and long-term life projects, making working with families and caregivers essential. An example is that 38.5 percent of toy advertisements reproduce feminine archetypes of beauty, including roles as caretakers, mothers, and wives (Instituto de la Mujer, 2020).
2. Educational policies can address cultural changes and gender stereotypes within educational institutions. With the support of families and caregivers, projects to raise gender-biased awareness, promote STEM studies, and strengthen teachers’ and students’ socio-emotional skills with a gender perspective contribute to cultural transformations. For example, the NiñaSTEM Pueden program, a collaboration between the Secretariat of Public Education (SEDU) of the State of Coahuila (Mexico) and the OECD, established an initiative for STEM preparation, mentoring, and leadership for girls in different educational cycles. As a result, the program introduced innovative areas of study and careers to girls, contributing to a redefinition of gender roles and opening new paths for women in STEM.
Higher education: The belief in a “natural” division of labor between men and women reinforces gender-based stereotypes that frame some careers as more “feminine” than others. This social preconception distances women from the positions of prestige and responsibility they could reach in IT. In the same way, it alienates women from the highest decision-making spheres, leadership positions in the academic and research world, and other STEM-related activities.
3. Women’s representation at each stage of their trajectory is essential. Exposure to role models and their trajectory is a critical factor for their success in STEM. According to the International Finance Corporation, women are more likely to enroll in courses with at least one female instructor, and these instructors are better evaluated.
4. Support networks among women contribute to the success and permanence of women in STEM education. Networks support bonds of sorority and solidarity, resources, knowledge, opportunity exchanges, cooperation, and comprehensive understandings of women’s needs. Examples of these are the teachers and instructors of initiatives such as Laboratoria, as well as regional and global networks such as Geek Girls Latam and Women Who Code.
Finally, the labor market must be explicit and affirmative in its support for women, offering incentives and networks throughout processes – from recruitment to promotion.
5. IT businesses must ensure the creation of work cultures that promote and value diversity, inclusion, and equity. These can be done by intentionally monitoring goals and gender indicators that allow for the measure of businesses’ progress in gender equality. An example of such an initiative is Accenture’s Getting to Equal strategy, which seeks equality and parity in scenarios such as female boards of directors, business units (marketing, sales, development), new hires, and promotions.
6. Support for women must be made explicit in the publication of job opportunities. Inclusive language is an affirmative and effective tool to avoid the self-exclusion of women. For example, the recruitment and selection process of Orange S.A includes a breakdown by gender of the candidacies and the mandatory nature of female applications.
7. Partnerships between the public sector and civil society are crucial to reducing the impacts of the care economy on women’s training, placement, permanence, and labor promotion. An example is the District Care System of Bogota. Its objectives are to recognize care work, redistribute it between men and women, and reduce unpaid care work times, offering the possibility of developing skills or accessing training.
8. The creation of leadership-oriented programs for women in different STEM areas helps to break the glass ceiling in this sector. A few of these initiatives include Women Will from Google and Women in Science (WiSci) from Girl Up and Intel.