Women in the STEAM world: the numbers that urgently need to be reversed

Imagine not being able to take samples at sea for your PhD because fishermen are superstitious about the female presence? Or that there is a decree that prevents you from developing an activity in the field you are studying? These are some of the difficulties that Chilean women faced and overcame when they ventured into the STEAM field more than 30 and/or 40 years ago.

Although these types of barriers are disappearing, There are other social and cultural factors in the family that make girls drop science from their spectrum at an early age. Or worse, they don’t even have them in their imagination.

Worldwide, fewer girls than boys, even among the best, pursue careers in science or technology. Chile ranks 61st among 65 countries listed in a UNICEF report (2020) in this area.

PhD and Director of the Department of Biology at the Universidad Católica del Norte, Elizabeth von Brandt, has been at the academy for 37 years. An unexpected path for her mother, whose greatest ambition in the 1970s was for her daughters to study pedagogy. But she and her sisters and brothers chose the sciences. The key was their father, a physicist, who told them, “You don’t need to take knowledge out of your body, it doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t take up space.”

Elizabeth’s father was unusual. In Chile, Portugal and Hungary, about 50% of parents expect their children to pursue a STEM career. But less than 20% have such expectations for their daughters. (UNICEF 2020).

From more to less

In the world, notes UNICEF, 18% of girls choose STEM in higher education versus 35% of boys, but within that field they are even in their choice of science. Not so in Engineering and ICT, where the percentages differ: 7% women vs. 21% men and 3% vs. 6% respectively.

The reality confirmed by Elizabeth and the Dean of the Faculty of Chemistry and Biology of Usach, Leonora Mendoza. The former recalls that when she studied, 30% of marine biology students were women, but now they exceed 50%.

“We have quite a lot of female interest in the races we dictate. Most are inclined towards pharmaceutical chemistry, biochemistry, pedagogy. In the 2022 figures, the percentage of female students (62.52% in undergraduate and graduate programs enrolled) is greater than that of males,” commented Mendoza. He shared with Von Brand that the situation was different in engineering or mathematics.

Before the social epidemic and the pandemic, at the country level, 27% of PSU physics enrollees are female and 9% of Electrical Engineering enrollees are female.

Last year, 54% of undergraduate enrollments were female, but only 1 in four STEM enrollments were female.

“There is a strong intergenerational effect: applicants tend to reproduce the work or field of study of their parents of the same sex,” says Sabina Montoya, an academic and now head of the Department of Chemistry at UCN. Thus, women tend to choose more feminized fields.

When Sabina chose science, she had to deal with jokes from her classmates about being a woman, especially since she competed side by side with them and surpassed them. She was the only representative of the genre to take a master’s degree, and during classes more than one academic asked him: “And what are you doing here? Go study babies!’ This attempt today would at least have a sanction”he assures.

“Women continue to be underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In 2019, only 7% of women who completed a bachelor’s degree did so in science and science careers,” Montoya elaborated, citing data from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Knowledge and Innovation, the lowest percentage among OECD countries.

Even though it is 2022, there are still these preconceived notions that girls’ abilities are not in mathematics, pure physics or mechanical engineering.. There is talent everywhere, just as there are great men in the kitchen, there are also girls who are outstanding talents in engineering,” adds von Brandt.


One of the recurring complaints of STEM students is the lack of female role models. They warn that in universities the majority of lecturers are men. Across all subjects, female students enrolled in master’s degrees reached 54% in 2021 and 43% in PhDs, but in STEM fields the percentages fell to 29% and 37% for them, respectively.

in Chile, women researchers face barriers to accessing public research funding, career progression and access to fair payreveal the data from Gender Radiography 2022, from the portfolio of sciences.

Of the total number of doctoral students working in universities, 36% are women, and of the total number of research workers, 34% are also women. “There is a big gap because the positions of power that determine participation and acquisition of resources, decision-making are more masculine, and that means when you do a gender analysis, you find that there is little female participation,” he says. Leonora Mendoza.

And if you consider the total number of people who working at universities who have a PhD and are on an open-ended contract, only 33% are women. Some admit to buying tickets for years until there were no seats left to fill the seat left by a man. Vices and preconceived notions such as that they will devote themselves to children and family and therefore have more licenses threaten their departure.

PUCV, Usach and UCN created the Science Up consortium, which was awarded Corfo’s Science and Innovation 2030 project, which seeks to implement a plan to transform its undergraduate and postgraduate science faculties by changing their culture to reduce gender differences. They seek to increase women’s participation and leadership in teaching, research projects, technology transfer, innovation and entrepreneurship.

In the middle of this year biochemist Rosa Devez grabbed the headlines by taking over as chancellor of the University of Chile, the first woman in the position in 30 years. With her are already four (three from the STEM field), out of 18, women who lead state universities. “The day we stop being singled out when a woman takes a stand is the day we’ll have simply overcome the issue of equality,” Mendoza says.

Figures for research and development and entrepreneurship

Women in R&D: In 2019, 54% of people who provided administrative support without being directly involved in R&D were women. 45% of technical assistance providers are women and only 35% are researchers.

Patents: In 2019, 22% of patent applicants were women, over the past seven years this percentage has hovered between 17% and 25%. 34% of people with PhDs who have generated new products, only 34% are women.

Posts: Only one 37% of people with publications in journals indexed in WoS, Scopus and SciELO between 2008 and now are women.

Research and Development Funding: Only one 28% of those who led projects funded by InnovaChile Corfo between 2011 and 2021 they were women (but average funding was higher for them).

As far as scientific and technological enterprises and companies are concerned only 11% are led by women in Chile, and 15% have mixed leadership. While 36% have no women among their employees, and in 32% women represent half or more of the total number of employees.

How to turn around?

For Sabina Montoya, in addition to identifying the factors that facilitate or hinder the choice of a career in this field, it is crucial to have public policies to insert and seek greater participation of women in scientific practices.

As von Brand thinks key to promote references of Chilean school education scholars, especially with girls who come from non-academic homes because they are discouraged from pursuing a STEM field more out of ignorance than ability. For this reason, they consider it appropriate to make visible and highlight the work of Chilean researchers in various fields and to include a bibliography of women authors in scientific career programs.

Early intervention in science matters. Ten years ago, UCN started with the Trash Scientists program, where elementary school students sort trash on beaches. Today some of them reached the classrooms.

At Usach, they have programs where their scientists visit schools to motivate students based on their experiences, and this month they will be resuming science fairs with talks by nationally important women in the field.

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