New Gender Benchmarking Study: South Africa Ranks Low on Women Participating in STI

Cape Town, March 7, 2013 – In the first gender benchmarking study of its kind, researchers have found that numbers of women in the science, technology and innovation fields (STI) are alarmingly low in the world’s leading economies, and are actually on the decline in many, including the United States. For South Africa, results show that women have more opportunities available to them than ever before, however, their participation in the science, technology and innovation workforce remains low.

The full gender benchmarking study maps the opportunities and obstacles faced by women in science in Brazil, South Africa, India, the Republic of Korea, Indonesia, the US, the EU. The study was conducted by experts in international gender, science and technology issues from Women in Global Science & Technology (WISAT) and the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), and funded by the Elsevier Foundation. The research was led by Dr. Sophia Huyer, Executive Director of WISAT and Dr. Nancy Hafkin, Senior Associate of WISAT.

South Africa ranks fifth overall compared to the other countries studied. South Africa’s results include the following rankings:

  • Second in knowledge society decision-making with comparatively high rates of women on corporate boards (14%) and as science academy members (28%).
  • Third in social status and fourth in science, technology and innovation participation after the US, EU and Brazil. This impressive ranking is likely a result of a strong educational system with high levels of primary and secondary enrollments, a policy focus on STI, and quotas in various sectors to promote diversity of participation by race and gender.
  • South Africa’s alarming rate of HIV in the female population puts it last in health, however.
  • Fifth in women’s access to resources due to low levels of internet access for females (11%) and low levels of access to basic infrastructure such as energy and transportation in rural areas.
  • Overall participation in the STI sector workforce remains low.
  • Women remain severely under-represented in degree programs for engineering, physics and computer science.
  • Even in countries where the numbers of women studying science and technology have increased, it has not translated into more women in the workplace. While South Africa sees 45% representation of females in Science and Engineering enrollments, the numbers of women actually working in these fields is 16%, with 36% representation in the technician workforce.

“Despite an enabling policy environment and increased uptake of STI study except in engineering, this has not resulted in an increase in the science, technology and innovation workforce and especially leadership in South Africa. Mentoring activities will be critical in changing the status quo,” said Professor Roseanne Diab, Executive Officer, Academy of Science of South Africa.

Despite efforts by many of these countries to give women greater access to science and technology education, research shows negative results, particularly in the areas of engineering, physics and computer science – less than 30% in most countries. Although no data is available for enrollment in these fields separately in the country, but the rate of graduates In engineering sciences, materials and technologies is extremely low (only 15% in 2007).

“These economies are operating under the existing paradigm that if we give girls and women greater access to education they will eventually gain parity with men in these fields,” states Sophia Huyer, the lead researcher and founding executive director of Women in Global Science & Technology. “This has dictated our approach to the problem for over a decade and we are still only seeing incremental changes. The report indicates that access to education is not a solution in and of itself. It’s only one part of what should be a multi-dimensional policymaking approach. There is no simple solution.”

The data show that women’s parity in the science, technology and innovation fields is tied to multiple empowerment factors, with the most influential being representation in the labor force, larger roles in government and politics, access to economic, productive and technological resources, quality healthcare and financial resources. Findings also show that women have greater parity in countries with government policies that support childcare, equal pay, and gender mainstreaming. One of the main findings is that few countries collect consistent and reliable sex-disaggregated data in all of these areas, which inhibits their ability to implement effective supporting policies and programs.

“We found that the absence of any one of these elements creates a situation of vulnerability for economies that want to be competitively positioned in the knowledge economy,” Huyer says. “No one country or region is ticking off all the boxes, and some are falling dismally short. This is a tremendous waste of resources. We are wasting resources educating women without following through, and we are missing out on the enormous potential that women represent.”

“This broad and ambitious assessment is a critical starting point for measuring the participation of women and girls in science, technology and innovation in emerging and developing worlds,” said David Ruth, Executive Director of the Elsevier Foundation, “This study identifies key areas of national strength and weakness, and we hope it will help form the basis of evidence-based policy making and aid going forward.”