A Map of the Gender Gap in Science Around the Globe

A portrait from UNESCO shows where women are well represented among employed scientists, and where they are rare.

A map from UNESCO provides a very rough picture of "the gender gap in science" around the globe, showing large swaths of relative equality in parts of South America and Central Asia, and great inequality in countries including India, France, Germany, and Japan. In those places--some of the world's science powerhouses--women make up less than a third of researchers.

But, like I said, this is a rough picture. Its data comes from headcounts that include any professional "engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems, as well as in the management of these projects." What are the distributions of women and men at the entry-level jobs? What is it like at the tops of the most powerful hierarchies?

Additionally, the map does not show the U.S., which the report chalks up to "a lack of data." I tried to track down that data myself, but unfortunately, with the National Science Foundation website down due to the shutdown, I ran into the same problem (an archived version of the site does not include any of the Excel tables needed). (The map also unfortunately does not cover Australia, China, Canada, and a few other key countries.)

That said, Eileen Pollack's wonderful recent New York Times article can fill in a bit where the official statistics are wanting. She writes, "Only one-fifth of physics Ph.D.’s in this country are awarded to women, and only about half of those women are American; of all the physics professors in the United States, only 14 percent are women." Pollack tries to answer The Big Question: What, in 2013, "could still be keeping women out of the STEM fields (“STEM” being the current shorthand for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics”), which offer so much in the way of job prospects, prestige, intellectual stimulation and income?"

Her conclusion, after some deep reporting and thoughtful reflection, is that all-powerful but difficult-to-know monster: culture. She writes:

As so many studies have demonstrated, success in math and the hard sciences, far from being a matter of gender, is almost entirely dependent on culture — a culture that teaches girls math isn’t cool and no one will date them if they excel in physics; a culture in which professors rarely encourage their female students to continue on for advanced degrees; a culture in which success in graduate school is a matter of isolation, competition and ridiculously long hours in the lab; a culture in which female scientists are hired less frequently than men, earn less money and are allotted fewer resources.

This map offers confirmation for her conclusion: The world isn't all the same. The gender gap isn't inherent in our biologies, in the very nature of the sexes. Rather, cultures vary, and the result is expressed in the map above. We'd do well to look at countries like Argentina and Brazil and see what is helping them achieve their nice purple color.

Pollock, for her part, takes heart in the attitudes of four female Yale graduate students she meets at a picnic. One, an African-American woman who had attended a historically black college for her undergraduate degree, tells Pollack that, yes, she struggled at Yale at first, but with some support from her mentors, she was doing well. “As my mother always taught me,” she says to Pollock, “success is the best revenge.”

Maybe, just maybe, that is what an emerging culture--one that fosters both its male and its female scientists--sounds like.

Hat tip Alice Bell