Sydney — While women play a critical role in science and technology, women career scientists still face gender bias, accounting for only 28 per cent of engineering graduates and 40 per cent of graduates in computer science and informatics, according to a UNESCO report.

On 11 February, the sixth UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, UNESCO released a chapter on gender titled To be Smart, the Digital Revolution will Need to be Inclusive from its science report scheduled for publication in April.

The chapter highlighted that women are not benefitting fully from employment opportunities open to highly educated and skilled experts in cutting edge fields, such as artificial intelligence. Also, women founders of start-ups struggle to access finance, and in large tech companies they remain underrepresented in both leadership and technical positions.

Anjana Singh, former head of the Central Department of Microbiology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal, who had to face several challenges at home and at work to reach the top post notes that women face distinct impediments during the three developmental stages when it comes to joining science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses.

“In childhood and adolescence, male stereotypes about STEM, parents’ expectations of daughters focussing on household works, peer norms, traditional culture and lack of fit with personal goals make girls shy away from STEM fields. In emerging adulthood, feeling unfit in STEM classes, outnumbered by male peers and lacking female role models make women avoid STEM majors or leave at mid-career level,” Singh tells SciDev.Net.

“In early to mid-adulthood, subtle gender bias in hiring and promotion, biased evaluation of scientific work, non-inclusive department environment, finding difficulty managing work/home responsibilities, and difficulty returning after a family-related pause undermine the retention of women in STEM,” she adds.

Globally, only 33.3 per cent of researchers are women despite representing 45 and 55 per cent of students at the Bachelor’s and Master’s levels of study and comprising 44 per cent of those enrolled in PhD programmes, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The ‘glass ceiling’ remains an obstacle to women’s careers in academia and the gender gap widens as women progress in their careers.

Singh, who is a member of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, which has less than 17.5 per cent female academicians, says perseverance without losing hope is the key to achieving success. “Evidence-based programmes and policies can remove obstacles for girls and women in the fields of STEM. We need flexible workplaces and more female role models,” Singh tells SciDev.Net.