Coded Bias: The underrepresentation of women in STEM in Latin America and the Caribbean

May 7, 2024

As we mark International Labor Day on May 1st, this #GraphForThought explores the dynamics of education, labor market trends, and gender imbalances by analyzing female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields across Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), with particular focus on the systemic gender gaps within this pivotal sector. 

The ongoing discussion surrounding women's low participation in STEM has intensified in recent decades, particularly as the impacts of technology and artificial intelligence on the global economy have gained prominence. While progress has been achieved in LAC, where 41% of STEM graduates are female, reaching parity in STEM education remains elusive. Interestingly, LAC fares better than the world and the OECD averages (38% and 37% respectively) in terms of female STEM graduates, as depicted in Figure 1.[1] However, in a context where women graduate from tertiary education at higher rates than men, and where female graduates are overrepresented in fields such as education (77%) and health and welfare (73%) —results similar to those of OECD countries—there is still much to be done to address the obstacles that women face in STEM fields in the region.



Beyond STEM education, evidence points to an even wider gender gap when looking at employment outcomes in this field. Data on employment in STEM is limited in LAC but looking at the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector, for instance, we observe that only 3 out of 10 employees are women, with significant variations across countries. In Guyana, women make up 42% of ICT employees, whereas in Argentina, they represent only 22%. This disparity is not unique to the region but reflects a global trend: on average, women only hold 28% of positions in Science and Engineering. Women are more commonly found in roles within the care work and health services sector, where they hold over 70% of jobs.

The fact that more women are graduating from STEM careers, but fewer are working in related fields, raises questions about the barriers faced by female graduates in entering science and technology professions. What obstacles are preventing greater participation of women in these industries? 

Several factors might contribute to women’s underrepresentation in STEM programs in LAC. Disparities in foundational skills, as seen in the 2022 PISA scores where boys generally outperform girls in Mathematics and Science, are pivotal. Additionally, the lack of female role models and entrenched cultural and social gender norms that shape expectations from family members, teachers, and the community regarding girls' abilities and potential, can influence their career choices (J-PAL, 2023UNESCO, 2017). Together, these elements lead to a decline in girls' interest in STEM subjects as they reach adolescence, affecting their pursuit of advanced studies and exacerbating the observed gender gap in education.

Challenges persist for women's inclusion after graduating from STEM programs, hindering their employment in the sector. Cultural and gender stereotypes and less family-friendly work arrangements, can discourage women from pursuing careers in STEM, particularly early in their professional lives (Beede et al., 2011). Part of this disparity may surge from women's disproportionate burden of caregiving responsibilities, as highlighted in a previous #GraphForThought on unpaid care work. Furthermore, the male-dominated nature of these fields could exacerbate labor discrimination, posing additional hurdles for female entry, while gender-related workplace harassment remains an understudied issue both in STEM and in LAC.

The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields has significant implications for labor markets. STEM careers are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs, but the underutilization of female talent prevents economies from reaching their full potential. LAC economic performance could be significantly accelerated by increasing the number of STEM jobs as well as fostering a more diverse workforce, especially considering that STEM jobs are associated with increased labor productivity and wages.

Encouraging more women to pursue STEM degrees and jobs requires addressing deep-seated gender stereotypes that can limit their aspirations from an early age. Initiatives aimed at increasing girls’ interest in science and technology, exposing them to successful women in the field,  and providing training in related skills, are gaining traction in the region. 

As we celebrate Labor Day, it's important to reflect on the gender gap in STEM and the steps needed to address it. LAC countries could adopt a multifaceted approach, focusing on improving education quality, fostering mentorship, forging partnerships for training and recruitment, implementing gender equality policies, and raising awareness about STEM's importance for girls. This comprehensive approach is crucial as gender equality in STEM not only promotes fair participation but also drives broader social and economic gains. Learning from countries that have achieved gender parity in educational outcomes can provide valuable insights into the root causes of this gap and inform effective strategies for closing it. By actively promoting STEM fields among women and implementing policies to support their careers, nations can unlock enormous potential and foster a balanced and inclusive workforce.



[1] The data reported for each country is the most recent available; Antigua and Barbuda (2012), Argentina (2011), Barbados (2011), Belize (2015), Brazil (2017), Chile (2017), Colombia (2018), Costa Rica (2018), Cuba (2016), Dominican Republic (2017), Ecuador (2016), El Salvador (2018), Grenada (2018), Guatemala (2015), Guyana (2012), Honduras (2018), Mexico (2017), Panama (2016), Peru (2017),Trinidad and Tobago (2002), Uruguay (2017), and Venezuela (2000).