Significant progress has been made toward attaining gender equity in higher education. In many countries, women now form the majority of college students. In Canada, some 55 percent of all undergraduates are women (Gilbride and Gudz, 2000). Similarly, in the countries of the European Union, more women than men are graduating from tertiary institutes, with 52 to 67 percent of degrees being awarded to women (Goetzfried, 2004).
Despite these impressive overall statistics, women students are still significantly underrepresented in S&T disciplines. While engineering undergraduates (‘first degrees’) in the United Kingdom, for example, have increased from 7 percent in 1984 to 14.55 percent in 2005, there is considerable variation by field. At one end of the spectrum, women make up 32 percent of chemical, process, and energy engineering students; at the other end, in mechanical engineering, they represent only 8 percent (www.hesa.ac.uk).
Different issues arise in a country like India, where nationally almost 40 percent of university places are filled by women—in 2000 –01 their representation was nearly 22 percent in engineering and technology and 40 percent in science. Yet there is considerable variation between the country’s states. In Kerala, women’s college enrollment in science courses approaches 65 percent and for engineering and technology majors the figure is 31 percent. In Bihar, however, 21 percent of women enter college to study science and only 12 percent engineering and technology (INSA, 2004).
Efforts in the United States to attract women into science and engineering have been yielding results, with increasing numbers of women achieving Ph.D.s in recent decades. But underrepresentation still persists, especially in physics and engineering, as depicted in Figure 2.2.
The underrepresentation of women in science and technology is a phenomenon that transcends national boundaries, but interesting cultural exceptions do occur. Thus in the tertiary-education institutions of many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries—even in those where the general level of education is low and cultural traditions may often deny even superbly educated women a career —the gender balance across the S&T disciplines is relatively good (Figure 2.3). One reason may be that women from elite backgrounds have access to domestic help, thus levelling the playing field with the large majority of male scientists who assign the domestic sphere to their wives. To date, however, there has been little research in this area, but much could be learned from examining the reasons why in certain regions and cultures girls are on a par with boys in studying science, or why women and men choose S&T careers in comparable numbers.
In addition to educating students, universities are of course major employers of highly qualified scientists and engineers. At 30 percent of the S&T workforce, women researchers are relatively well represented in the European Union’s academic sector (European Commission, 2003). They account for approximately the same percentage in government.
But universities and agencies are not the only S&T employers. In most European countries, industry is the leading sector in terms of financing and working hours allocated to research and development, employing some 500,000 researchers. In terms of the employment of women researchers, however, the business sector —at 15 percent—lags far behind government and higher education (see Table 2.1). One reason is that few women have an engineering background, followed by specialized training to become corporate professionals. S&T entrepreneurship offers an attractive alternative that many women take advantage of. Governments and industry can facilitate women’s entrepreneurship by providing training and access to venture capital, loans and guarantees.
The Australian Institution of Engineers publishes and updates annually an online handbook titled The Engineering Profession: A Statistical Overview (www.ieaust.org.au). It illustrates the difference in employment between the private and public sectors. A statistical example is shown in Table 2.2, which illustrates the extremely low presence of women in the country’s engineering professions.
Members of the IAC