New UNESCO report sheds light on gender inequality in STEM education


Despite large efforts made over the past decades to narrow the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, major inequalities still persist. Socio-economic, cultural and other obstacles still prevent female learners from completing or benefiting fully from good quality education of their choice in many situations.

UNESCO’s new publication, Cracking the code: girls’ and women’s education in STEM, which was launched at the UNESCO International Symposium and Policy Forum on the same issue, deciphers the factors that hinder and facilitate girls’ and women’s participation in STEM education. It provides an in-depth look at the challenges, learning achievements and progression.  Here are some highlights from the report:

What is the overall status of girls in STEM education?

The gender disparity in STEM education is striking. In higher education, only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields are female. Today, only 28% of all of the world’s researchers are women. Gender stereotypes and biased attitudes compromise the quality of the learning experience for female students and limit their education choices.

What are the barriers?

  • A major concern in many countries is not only limited to the number of girls attending school, but the limited educational pathways available for those that do step into the classroom. Girls are significantly under-represented in STEM subjects in many settings.
  • Girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects as they get older, particularly between early and late adolescence. The gender gap in STEM becomes particularly apparent in upper secondary education, as reflected in girls’ choices of advanced studies in mathematics and science.
  • Women continue to drop out of STEM disciplines in disproportionate numbers during their higher education studies, while transitioning to the world of work and even during their career cycle.

What is the role of socialization in these trends, and to what extent do girls and women internalize negative stereotypes?

  • Girls’ disadvantage in STEM is a result of multiple and overlapping factors embedded in both the socialisation and learning processes. These include social, cultural and gender norms, which influence the way girls and boys are brought up, learn and interact with parents, family, friends, teachers and the wider community. These influences are a powerful force in shaping their identity, beliefs, behaviour and choices.
  • Girls are often brought up to believe that STEM subjects are “masculine” topics and that female ability in STEM is innately inferior to that of males. While research on biological factors belies any factual basis for such beliefs, they persist and undermine girls’ confidence, interest and willingness to engage in STEM subjects.

How can we help girls and women understand that gender stereotypes are artificial constructs and that studies and careers in STEM are open to them?

  • Education systems and schools play a central role in determining girls’ interest in STEM subjects and in providing equal opportunities to access and benefit from quality STEM education. Teachers, learning contents, materials and equipment, assessment methods and tools, the overall learning environment and the socialisation process in school are all critical to ensuring girls’ interest and engagement in STEM studies and, ultimately, STEM careers.
  • STEM careers are considered to be ‘the’ jobs of the future. Ensuring girls and women have equal access to STEM education and ultimately STEM careers is an imperative from the human rights, scientific, and development perspectives. Gender equality in STEM will ensure that boys and girls, men and women, will be able to acquire skills and opportunities to contribute to and benefit equally from the benefits of STEM.

The new report is a resource for education stakeholders and others working to promote gender equality. 

Learn more facts about girls’ and women’s education in STEM.