Changing the perspectives of women in science and engineering in the next 10 years

4 min read

The place of women in society is a hot topic. In addition to the media’s perspective, I will provide my point of view as a man, aged 24, who joined Catalay a year ago.

The current situation

The last decade has brought significant improvement in professional equality and equity in scientific fields. Nevertheless, inequality in different areas persists. UNESCO statistics show that women represent 29.3% of researchers worldwide and 34% in Belgium. 

There is an important gap between the underrepresentation of female researchers in the workplace compared to the parity among graduate students where 53% are women. There has been a clear increase of female students and graduates in the fields of science, technology and innovation, engineering and mathematics over the years. 

However, the integration of these women into the labour market has not reflected this rise as many systemic barriers persist.

Catalay is currently in line with the industry average with only 20% of women among its engineering consultants. We are aware that action needs to be taken concerning this underrepresentation.

Here are a few numbers in other high-skilled fields:

·65% of those who pass the medical school exam are women

·55% of doctors in practice in 2023 will be women

·16% of high-level academic positions are women (International Science Council, 2020)

Similarly, if we look at the number of female medical professors, only 14% are women, which is about the same as the International Science Council. Sophia Huyer mentions in her UNESCO report the “leaky pipeline syndrome”.

My instinct is to say to a woman who wants to join the engineering world: go for it, there is room for you!

Why this disparity?

There is evidence that female students wishing to enter the research field face barriers to entering into postgraduate studies. Postgraduate studies are a highly competitive environment, and research shows that there are fears of a potential lack of support, discrimination, and harassment from thesis supervisors and fellow students. 

A collection of personal testimonies from women around me confirmed these gender discriminations. Among these women, however, some mentioned a lack of intra-gender solidarity or even outright opposition to helping another woman.

Research shows that women’s performance is scrutinised more than that of men. The number of publications, articles, and patents of female researchers is lower than their male colleagues. 

Furthermore, reading committees that validate applications for publication in prestigious journals are also mostly composed of men. Research also shows that women have to make a greater effort to gain access to scholarships.

The European Patent Office reports that 13% of patents in Europe were filed by women between 2010 and 2019. This compares to less than 5% in 1990.

There are still too many gender biases in the world of science regarding the skills of women. In 2015, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt criticised the presence of women in his laboratories as ‘too emotional and likely to be a distraction’. Such comments from a Nobel laureate reinforce existing prejudices. J

Joan C. Williams talks about the ‘Maternal Wall’ in an article published in the Harvard Business Review. This phenomenon can be, for example, the employer who has a priori doubts about the performance and professional stability of a woman, because she is a woman and could have children, which implies possible absenteeism from work, etc.

Diversity in an environment promotes innovation and competitiveness. Gender diversity is part of this. The presence of more women allows research to be directed towards more inclusive fields. 

The concept of research by women for women seems obvious but not widely applied. For example, in the Mediator drug scandal, it was a woman, Dr Irène Frachon, who raised the alarm against the Servier laboratories: she alone was able to cast a fresh eye on the iatrogenic role of this drug.

We might also wonder which great inventions have been delayed because of the lack of diversity among researchers…

We need to consider the reduction of the gender gap as a lever for growth.

What will happen tomorrow?

UNESCO is committed, through the SAGA project, to reduce gender gaps in all countries and at all levels of education in the framework of Sustainable Development Goal n°5. 

To reduce the gender gap in science, UNESCO recommended the following guidelines for governments and employers:

· Collect more data by gender and sector

· Implement policies that include the participation of women, concerning gender parity in strategic positions

· Fund diversity (programmes, scholarships, grants)

· Implement a transparent recruitment policy

The ‘Women in Science’ statistical tool has been developed by UNESCO to provide data on gender disparities throughout women’s schooling and university careers. 

Salomé Senckeisen, in her podcast on gender parity in engineering, as an engineer herself, indicated the need to be represented by real or fictional female figures (TV series, literature…) so that future female students can project themselves into these high levels of competence.

One thing is for sure, female talent is already around us, let’s support them!


Written by Achille Boileau

Talent Acquisition Specialist at Catalay