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Computing Profession Europe Region Special Section: Big trends

Women Are Needed in STEM: European Policies and Incentives

  1. Introduction
  2. Gender Balance in STEM and the Necessity for Gender Equality
  3. The European Union's Strategy and Initiatives for Gender Equality in STEM
  4. Expected Impact
  5. Conclusion
  6. References
  7. Authors
  8. Footnotes
woman in science lab

Women’s persistent underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, occupations, and careers in various parts of the world and its negative impact on STEM labor force and research and innovation (R&I) have given rise to measures, projects, and initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality (GE). In Europe, gender balance in R&I is understood as a social justice and equality issue. Various measures (for example, regulation and research framework, bodies, agencies, funding schemes, prizes, and awards) have been implemented at the European Commission (EC) and European Union (EU) levels to increase women’s participation and include the gender dimension in R&I Achieving GE will significantly advance the STEM labor force, research and innovation, enhance the economy, and reduce the risk of women’s social exclusion to the benefit of society.

This article considers the main issues regarding GE in STEM in Europe including an analysis of the reasons for its necessity; a description of the European Union’s strategy, measures, initiatives, and activities toward achieving GE; and, finally, their anticipated impact.

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Gender Balance in STEM and the Necessity for Gender Equality

The recent momentous growth of the digital production sector offers extended employment opportunities for STEM and ICT-skilled employees. Within the European Union (EU), employment of STEM-skilled personnel increased by 12% between 2000 and 2013.4,7 According to the Tech Nation journal, in the U.K. alone, 1.46 million people (7.5% of the country’s workforce) are employed in this sector.13 Future increases are anticipated. The European Commission (EC) for example, estimates that by 2020 over 900,000 additional employees will be needed in the IT sector whereas for the entire STEM sector, seven million job openings are forecast by 2025.4

Despite the good present employment opportunities and the future occupational prospects, European countries face a conspicuous labor shortage in STEM, which tends to be more pronounced in the digital sector.4,5,6,7 The number of young persons pursuing STEM-related studies is decreasing, contrary to the increasing number of university graduates, while a significant proportion of current STEM employees are approaching retirement age.7 Consequently, ICT- and STEM-related professions are among the top five occupations facing skill shortage in Europe. Excepting Finland, all EU member states lack such professionals.4 Thus, labor force availability and recruitment in the field are becoming increasingly more challenging. A contributing factor to this challenge is women’s persistent underrepresentation.

Indeed, women who choose careers in ICT account for less than 2% of all women in the European labor market while their participation decreases with age (see Similarly disheartening is women’s involvement in innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, women in the EU, parallel to the situation in other parts of the world, constitute less than 25% of science and engineering professionals3 and only 14% of associate professionals, that is, those who perform research and operational tasks including supervision and control of technical and operational aspects of engineering operations (see for details on these statistics).

According to Catalyst, in 2014 women accounted for less than 1/3 of all employees in scientific research and development across the world (averaged across regions, see In Australia, for instance, women engineers represent less than 13% of the labor force. In Japan, despite recent measures intended to improve gender ratios in STEM, neither the 20% target of women in science, nor the 15% target of women engineers had been met by 2016. Recent reports estimate that women comprise 39.8% of all researchers in China12 and refer to the phenomenon of the “missing women in STEM.”14 Similarly, in the U.S., women earning engineering, computer, and information sciences degrees represent less than 20% (data for 2014–2015) of all graduates in these fields and less than 43% in all other STEM fields (see In India, although gender balance has been achieved with respect to graduation rates in science, IT, and computers (data for 2015–2016), women represent less than 32% of all graduates in the engineering and technology fields. In many European countries women account for less than 20% of all students enrolled in informatics studies (see Figure 1).9 Concurrently, no significant progress has been observed for the past six years.

Figure 1. Informatics education in Europe: Institutions, degrees, students, positions, salaries, key data 2012–2017, October 2018. Source: Informatics Europe.

Figure 2. The effect of closing the gender gap in STEM on GDP per capita. Source: European Commission.6

Figure. Indicative list of non-EC related bodies, agencies, and associations promoting gender equality in ICT in Europe.

This tenacious underrepresentation of women in STEM is further manifested as gender segregation in research and science, gender-related career challenges, gender disproportions in senior positions in academia, gender imbalance in access to research funding, gender-blind and gender-biased research, and organizational culture and institutional process. As detailed in the 2012 reporta of the EC Expert Group on Structural Change, gender inequalities in research institutions are shaped by: opaqueness in decision making; institutional practices based on unconscious biases in assessment of merit, leadership suitability, and performance evaluation; unconscious gender biases in assessment of excellence and the process of peer review; gender biases in the content of science itself; and a gendered labor organization with implications for research institutions as well. It is, however, progressively acknowledged that including women in STEM studies and professions will enlarge the relative pool of skills, talents, and resources; will enhance the research process and research outcomes; will increase innovation potential; and will boost major sectors of the economy. After all, gender equality refers to equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities for women and men and girls and boys, and entails consideration of “the interests, needs, and priorities of both women and men.”b

Achieving gender equality will significantly advance the STEM labor force, research and innovation, enhance the economy, and reduce the risk of women’s social exclusion to the benefit of society.

Within the EU, gender equality in all aspects of social, political, and cultural life, including education and R&I, is approached as a matter of social justice and fairness. GE is included in the EC’s priorities and is defined as “promoting equal economic independence for women and men, closing the gender gap, advancing gender balance in decision-making, ending gender-based violence, and promoting gender equality beyond the EU.”c The official policy for achieving gender equality endorsed by the EU is gender mainstreaming,d an internationally embraced strategy that “involves the integration of a gender perspective into the preparation, design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of policies, regulatory measures, and spending programs, with a view to promoting equality between women and men and combating discrimination.”e Toward this end, targeted measures have been developed and actions undertaken at the national and European levels. Although their results vary, and their full potential has not yet been realized, such measures attest to Europe’s commitment to gender equality. Here, we present these efforts as they pertain specifically to STEM research and education.

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The European Union’s Strategy and Initiatives for Gender Equality in STEM

The European Commission objectives. Over the years, the EC has developed a regulatory framework on gender equality targeting the labor market and research with three main objectives: gender equality in careers, gender balance in decision-making bodies, and integration of the gender dimension in R&I. Concomitantly, gender equality and mainstreaming are among the Priorities of the European Research Area (ERA),f while Article 16 of the Framework Regulation mandates the effective promotion of gender equality and the inclusion of the gender dimension in the R&I content. Thus, gender equality in Horizon 2020g (H2020) is both a quantitative (for example, gender balance in research teams, evaluation panels, advisory boards, expert groups, and so forth) and a qualitative mandate, that is, inclusion of the gender dimension in research.

The EC Advisory Group on Gender in its December 2016 position paper differentiates inclusion of the gender dimension in research from gender balance, which is constituted as “… a dynamic concept that entails researchers taking into account sex and gender in the whole research process, when developing concepts and theories, formulating research questions, collecting and analyzing data using the analytical tools that are specific to each scientific area.”h The same document provides concrete advice on implementing the gender dimension in research for each H2020 Work Programme including Leadership in Enabling and Industrial Technologies. Conceptually, the EC research framework moves beyond the numerical, sometimes token, inclusion of women in research and ensures that gender and the way it impacts research and its outcomes are meaningfully taken into consideration. On the implementation level, in the EU, Gender Equality bodies, agencies, and associations, both EC and non-EC related, have been founded, and initiatives such as prizes and awards and specifically dedicated funding schemes have been established.

Within the EU, gender equality in all aspects of social, political, and cultural life, including education and R&I, is approached as a matter of social justice and fairness.

Indicative gender equality-related bodies, agencies, and associations in Europe. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) is an autonomous body of the EU with the goal to strengthen and promote GE, including gender mainstreaming in all EU and the resulting national policies. EIGE has developed the Gender Equality in Academia and Research (GEAR) Tool that provides a step-by-step guide to preparing GE plans for academic and research organizations. The Helsinki Group on Gender Equality in Research and Innovation, a Standing Working Group of the ERA Committee, brings together representatives from Member States and Associated Countries to advise the European Commission on policies and initiatives on GE in R&I. Since 2005, She Figures and its Statistical Correspondents have published tri-annually pan-European comparable statistics on the current state of GE in R&I, thus serving the crucial goal of monitoring the progress toward GE and the impact of related policies and initiatives.

Focusing specifically on STEM and ICT, the European Centre for Women and Technology (ECWT) is a multiple stakeholder partnership consisting of more than 130 organizations and a significant number of individuals from governments, business, academia, and non-profit sectors with high-level expertise in women in technology development. It aims at increasing the number of girls and women in STEM and integrating a critical mass of women in the design, research, innovation, production, and use of ICT in Europe. Additionally, the European Network for Women in Digital aims at enhancing women’s participation in digital studies and occupations across the EU.

An indicative list of non-EC related bodies, agencies, and associations promoting GE issues in the ICT field in Europe is presented in a report by Informatics Europe.9 Among them, the Athena-SWAN Charter promotes practices to eliminate gender bias and foster an inclusive culture that values female staff, partially through the establishment of prizes and awards. It has been identified as a most effective approach since approximately 82% of U.K. research institutions have adapted their strategies to its Charter scheme.10

Prizes and awards. The EU Prize for Women Innovators ( is awarded every year to European women who founded a successful company and brought an innovation to market. The EC Call for Tech StartUps recognizes women who co-own a tech startup. Departments or faculties of EU universities or research institutes and labs that demonstrate a positive impact on women may be candidates for the MINERVA Informatics Europe Equality Award. European women in STEM may also apply for awards of international scope that recognize STEM-related achievements or for (European or international) STEM-related awards that target both genders.

EC funding opportunities and funded projects. GE issues and the gender dimension in research constitute a crosscutting priority in the entire H2020 Work Programme. Nevertheless, a dedicated funding scheme is included in the H2020 Science with and for Society (Swafs) program.i Swafs projects contribute to the promotion of Gender Equality Plans (GEPs): A set of actions aimed at conducting impact assessment/audits of procedures and practices to identify gender bias, identifying and implementing innovative strategies to correct bias, and setting targets and monitoring process via indicators.j Implementation of the respective GEAR Tool has resulted in examples of best practices on how to attract women into academic leadership positions ensuring, for instance, a gender-balanced representation in the highest decision-making bodies of universities.k Nonetheless, Swafs represents only 1.5% of the total budget for all activities under the Societal Challenges section.8

With respect to GE in STEM, a significant proportion of EC-funded projects are aimed at structural changes in science, technology, and innovation research organizations and at the inclusion of the gender dimension in research and education. Such projects include (indicatively) GENERA ( index.php); GEECO (, which will set up GEPs for universities and funding organizations in the STEM area; and EFFORTI (, aiming at analyzing the influence of measures to promote GE on R&I outputs and on establishing more responsible and responsive research, technology, development, and innovation systems.

A flagship project of particular interest to STEM is Gendered Innovations (, which specifically addresses the gender dimension of R&I. The project has developed practical methods of gender analysis tailored to the needs of scientists and engineers. More importantly, the project provides peer-reviewed analyses of case studies that evidence the need for considering gender in all stages of research design and implementation in order to produce better science and innovation outputs.

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Expected Impact

Measures and initiatives to promote GE in STEM fields have shown positive effects. In Germany, for instance, education initiatives contributed to an increase in the number of women graduating in STEM-related fields.1 Similarly, women’s share among appointed STEM professors has increased by 4.1%.2,11 Dedicated funding further contributes to an increasing interest in GEP implementation among EU research institutions and organizations (113 organizations through 17 projects up to 2017).

Closing the gender gap in STEM is further expected to increase the scientific quality and societal relevance of produced knowledge, technologies, and innovations; contribute to the production of goods and services better suited to potential markets;l and further aid EU economic growth. For example, it is estimated that by 2030 the increase of women’s participation in STEM-related fields will increase the EU GDP per capita by 0.7–0.9.6 In monetary terms, this will lead to 610–820 billion euros improvement in GDP. Furthermore, if effectively implemented, relevant EC measures are expected to increase women’s employment, productivity, and wages4 and thus contribute to long-term competitiveness of the EU economy and improved balance of trade.6

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Narrowing the gender gap in STEM fields has the potential to increase European labor supply and market activity, make women (and men) better equipped to secure steady and well-paid jobs, and in turn reduce the risk of women’s social exclusion, improving both science and society as a whole.

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