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Balancing the global equation for women in STEM

by Ingrid Montes, ACS Director-at-Large
July 11, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 28

Ingrid Montes
Credit: Jose Terron
Photo of .
Credit: Jose Terron

According to the United Nations, the world’s population as a ratio of men to women is approximately 1:1. However, when we consider the percentage of women entering careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), compared with men, that ratio drops significantly.

The underrepresentation of women in science has been a topic of great interest and debate around the world. Though many reports have been published in different countries, there is still a lack of data and information on the reasons for this disparity. Many studies are focused on STEM or natural sciences as a whole, but specific information related to the underrepresentation of women in chemistry and chemical engineering is limited.

According to the “UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030,” women outnumber men (53%) at the bachelor’s degree level worldwide. Female university students dominate in North America (57%), in Central and South America (49–67%), and even more so in the Caribbean (57–85%). Although an acceptable percentage of female students continue on to the master’s degree level, this percentage drops at the Ph.D. level, where male graduates (57%) outnumber female graduates. What’s more, the study finds that 72% of researchers on a global level are male.

The situation is improving in some countries, such as in the Caribbean and parts of Latin America, where females earn 35% or more of graduate degrees in science, according to the UNESCO report. In fact, women make up more than 50% of graduates in Panama, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad & Tobago (which has a very small graduate population). In Guatemala, as many as 75% of science graduates are female.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, women account for 44% of researchers in scientific fields. Data from 2009 to 2013 show that female researchers outnumber males in Bolivia (63%), Venezuela (56%), Argentina (53%), and Paraguay (52%). Other statistical data show near parity in Uruguay (49%), Brazil (48%), Cuba (47%), and Guatemala (45%). Trailing behind are Trinidad & Tobago (44%), Costa Rica (43%), and Colombia and Chile (31%).

At national academies of science, women account for more than 25% of members in only two Latin American countries, Cuba and Panama.

Despite the progress that has been observed at all levels of education in Latin America and the Caribbean, underrepresentation persists in highly recognized positions such as university chancellors and vice chancellors, directors of scientific research institutes, and full professors. At national academies of science, women account for more than 25% of members in only two Latin American countries, Cuba and Panama. This trend is also evident in scientific peer reviewers and on editorial boards, board of directors, and research councils. Comparing the causes for underrepresentation of women in Latin America, the Caribbean, the U.S., and any other country in the world, we can reach almost the same conclusion: There is a gender disparity.

Although the specific reasons may vary in each country, some of the factors that contribute to the disparity between the ratio of females to males at each stage of a scientific career are almost the same. Among the factors are beliefs about intelligence; stereotypes; lack of recognition; performance evaluation; evaluation criteria; work-life balance; the maternal wall; the glass ceiling; unconscious gender bias; workplace bias; and limited networking, role models, and mentoring.

Although the path for improving the situation is slow, countries are becoming more aware that a diverse workforce will improve their global competitiveness and provide novel perspectives to research, innovation, and creativity. There are many initiatives in place to address this issue: The UN has a strong commitment to gender mainstreaming; UNESCO has established gender equality as one of its two global priorities; the European Union created Horizon 2020; and other European initiatives exist such as the Helsinki Group on Gender in Research & Innnovation, the She Figures publication, and Gender-Net. Furthermore, some countries have established actions and policies regarding equity and inclusiveness (for instance, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina, among others). Similarly, the U.S. established the Science & Engineering Equal Opportunities Act of 1980. From that act, funding and fellowship opportunities have arisen—for example, National Science Foundation ADVANCE program and the OXIDE program cofunded by the NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy.

I am very pleased that ACS is fully committed to gender equity through the Women Chemists Committee; the society’s Women Chemists of Color initiative, which builds community, provides resources, and advocates for minority women chemists; and the independent Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists, known as COACh. ACS has many initiatives and committees working on diversity and inclusion.

If you have thoughts; comments; or gender data in chemistry and chemical engineering from your area, state, and country, please share them with me via e-mail at I look forward to hearing from you.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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