Towards Gender Parity In Asian Science & Tech

Gender imbalances in science and technology participation throughout Asia are a missed opportunity to capture the potential of the best scientists, says Ms. Danièle A. Castle.

AsianScientist (Jun 25, 2014) – The countries, companies and universities which make the best use of their scientific talent are those which harness all of their talent, both male and female. Nurturing the best researchers and scientists lends a cutting edge and competitive advantage in education, research and technology. There is still a long way to go in ensuring that girls and women in Asia have fair access to education beyond primary school, let alone their fair share in science and technology.

Gender imbalances in science across Asia

While some countries and universities are increasingly successful at producing women scientists, they have been less successful at retaining them. The gender imbalance in science begins in early education and grows over time, notably at university, where men outnumber women, particularly in fields such as engineering and mathematics.

A Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study shows that the ratios of male and female science students in China and Japan are roughly equal until the end of high school (46 percent and 51 percent respectively). The gender gap widens sharply at Bachelor level and continues further to researcher careers (25 percent and 14 percent respectively). There are consistently low levels of women in the skilled technology workforce, with even fewer women in senior management and as leaders of large companies.

Gender disparities in science and technology are particularly visible when women cross from educational to professional life. The ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon hampers progress: the further a woman advances in her scientific profession, the lower the number of women peers. The percentage of women who enroll in or graduate in engineering in university in Singapore is approximately 30 percent compared to 70 percent men. Similarly, the percentage of women who enroll in or graduate in computing/IT in Singapore is approximately 35 percent, while the percentage of women IT professionals is 27 percent.

A shortage of women in science is a missed opportunity to capture the potential of all of the best scientists. Among the Asian economies, Myanmar (86 percent), Philippines (52 percent) and Thailand (51 percent) have the highest proportions of women researchers in science. However, figures from Indonesia (31 percent), Singapore (29 percent) and Pakistan (27 percent) are more representative of the regional average of 20 percent. Korea (17 percent), Japan (14 percent), Bangladesh (14 percent) and Nepal (8 percent) rank at the bottom.

The leaky pipeline is due to a number of conditions such as marginalization, funding gaps, family-unfriendly work environments and a lack of recognition of the work that women scientists accomplish.

Fixing the leaky pipeline

A concerted effort in the recruitment, retention and promotion of women to the highest levels of science and technology is needed to address gender disparities. Over the last decade the proportion of female researchers has risen by 3 percentage points in Japan, 5.5 points in Korea, 4 points in Singapore and 2 percentage points in Taiwan. At these rates, gender parity in science researchers will take decades to achieve. When will policy makers and industry leaders conclude that Asia’s economies cannot afford to wait?

Appointing more women to top positions in research, academia and companies would open the opportunity to include the voices of women in key decisions on the direction of research and development, thereby opening the possibility of addressing the diverse needs of half the population.

The share of women on the boards of main scientific institutions is a mere 17 percent in China and 6 percent in Japan, according to BCG, even though it is well-known that diverse leadership leads to increased performance. For industry and governments, scientific excellence that is more inclusive is also more competitive, creative and innovative; benefiting both genders.

Strong government prioritization is critical to addressing the low levels of girls and women specializing in science. Governments must recognize that women’s involvement in science and technology is an essential component of economic development. Legislation can protect women’s rights in every sphere of socio-economic life, including science and technology.

Governments can also establish programs that provide incentives for women to pursue a scientific career and increase the number of women on decision-making and policy advisory bodies to make the decision-making process more sensitive to the challenges faced by women.

Among the leading knowledge-based economies, 30 percent of women leave science and technology due to inflexible work hours and the lack of child care. Yet the recruitment and retention of girls and women in science careers is a long-term economic and development strategy that goes beyond shorter-term political and economic cycles. Companies can provide a workplace environment which enables men and women to balance professional and family responsibilities.

Employers who offer a balanced working environment will keep women working and advancing in their chosen professions, and not retreating to less demanding professional careers, part-time work or even non-professional employment. They can establish inclusive recruitment, advancement and retention practices, and ensure diversity in decision-making in order to promote excellence and facilitate formal and informal networking opportunities, as well as mentorship programs.

Universities can involve women in curriculum development, appoint women scientists to decision-making roles and reduce drop-out rates of female science and technology students by providing inclusive environments and mentorship. Universities can also provide bridges to employment for women.

Science interest and excellence starts at home and in school. We must do more to inspire and encourage women and girls to lead in the sciences and in technology. Ensuring access to education for all girls from an early age is just the starting point.

Danièle A. Castle is Executive Director of the International Federation of University Women (IFUW). Join IFUW at the seminar “Increasing Access to Education for Girls & Women in Asia: Solutions for Success” on 30 June 2014 in Singapore.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Danièle A. Castle has been Executive Director of the International Federation of University Women since January 2013. Ms Castle has a strong background in strategic planning, management and communications. She is particularly committed to the education of all girls and women worldwide as a path to improving lives and believes strongly in women's entrepreneurship.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist