Traditionally, policy discussions regarding the role of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) typically turned on questions of social justice, equity, and rights. However, the dominant rationale today for enhancing and increasing women’s representation in STEM fields has shifted to a focus on workforce needs and overall economic and national development. The expansion of the modern knowledge-based and innovation-driven global economy has emphasized related workforce demands in countries around the world which, in turn, have brought attention to populations that traditionally have been underrepresented in that workforce. In this vein, STEM women have become an increasingly prominent issue on policy agendas. While social justice and rights still are underlying factors in many debates regarding the position of women in society, more material labor market and workforce concerns now constitute the core of policy dialogues addressing gender relations and outcomes in STEM fields. Accordingly, we focus on related issues to examine promising policies for advancing women in science as a critical problem around the world.3
We begin by conceptualizing “policy” in three major ways as plan, rationale, and intervention. As plan, policy delineates aims and provides related guidelines for action—or inaction. As rationale, policy justifies and/or supports a course of action or inaction. In terms of women’s participation in the sciences, a wide range of themes can be identified in terms of policy as rationale. For example, an enduring fundamental issue involves questions of the role of women in society and of their capacity for understanding and conducting science. The relationship between women and education was the rationale first for exclusion, and then for inclusion—specifically, the erroneous belief that education negatively impacted childbearing and the subsequent argument that educating women would lead to better-raised children both have been invoked as policy rationales. As intervention, policy is conceived as a plan of action for changing specific outcomes deemed as undesirable in some way. Moreover, as plan, rationale,
1 Cheryl B. Leggon, associate professor, School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology.
2 Connie L. McNeely, professor of public policy, and co-director, Center for Science and Technology Policy, George Mason University.
3 Although this project focuses on women in chemistry, computer science, and mathematics and statistics, relevant policies tend to reference STEM in general. Thus, we explore the general policies, while recognizing their application to women in the specified fields.
and intervention, policy is not developed in a vacuum, but rather in a broader context shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces. Consequently, policy is not static; policy is the product of various interconnected and interdependent dynamic factors and processes. Furthermore, because “one size does not fit all,” a policy that is promising in one context may not necessarily be promising in another.
Accordingly, we consider various aspects of policy as they relate to one another and, by so doing, provide a means for systematically comparing and categorizing policy goals and provisions cross-nationally and over time. From these systematic comparisons, we identify a range of policies that show promise in the context of individual countries and regions. From these policies, we search for common patterns and characteristics, and also note differences relative to situational or contextual conditions. Our discussion of promising policies is based on the premise that policies address issues as well as problems—and that all issues are not problems. Therefore, policy can address what is working as well as what is not working. Thus, framed as plan, rationale, and intervention, and with particular attention to encouraging female STEM participation, promising policies reflect a process that can be delineated in terms of six general analytical dimensions: issue identification, statement, data, gender mainstreaming, institutionalization, and diffusion.4
Problem and Issue Identification
To maximize effectiveness, policy must be based on a clear specification of a problem or issue, including the scope of the issue and the magnitude of its ramifications. Most essentially, there should be an indication of the segment(s) of the population that the policy is meant to impact and in what way(s). Problem and issue specification must be carefully crafted and articulated to capture the essential policy traits and features and to channel them to frame the issue accordingly. This task is especially essential in light of different legal and cultural contexts and applications across and within countries, which leads to some basic questions that must be considered. For example, to what extent do policy goals and projections intended to increase female representation in science and technology also include references to their increased presence as decision-makers and evaluators—positions that function as social and professional arbiters and community gatekeepers?
Promising policies couple the policy statement to policy implementation. Clear specifications of objectives provide directives for implementation and promising policies focus on actions that are goal-oriented. Moreover, along with guidelines for action, they establish targets rather than quotas. Enhancing women’s participation—i.e., mainstreaming women’s participation—in all aspects of the sciences and technology requires continuous and rigorous monitoring over time. Therefore, the policy statements characteristic of promising policies delineate deadlines for specified progress, and emphasize the obligation to report the extent of
4 Our approach is informed by that of the Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST) initiative, a public—private partnership dedicated to building a stronger, more diverse U.S. workforce in science, engineering, and technology by increasing the participation of underrepresented groups. BEST applies its knowledge of program effectiveness in STEM to support efforts to build capacity at the local, state, and federal levels. Available at http://www.bestworkforce.org.
progress made towards long-term policy goals and shorter-term objectives (benchmarks). Promising policies explicitly address issues of accountability in terms of policy implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.
Evidence-based policies are required for legitimating an action framework as plan, rationale, and intervention. Accurate, credible, reliable, and valid data, act to both drive and inform promising policies, reflecting interactive and iterative processes. To that end, data must be engaged and disaggregated in ways consistent with the specification of the policy issue or problem. Thus, in the context of this project, data should be disaggregated not only by gender but also by citizenship, race, ethnicity, and other relevant socio-cultural, political, and economic characteristics. This applies to countries in the “developed” world as well as to those in the “developing” world. Such data provide a foundation from which policy can be developed and implemented. Furthermore, these data form the basis for policy evaluation and are the building blocks of adequate and appropriate indicators of policy efficacy at various points in time. In the same vein, data can provide real time feedback during implementation, enabling adjustments as warranted.
With gender equality as the ultimate goal, gender mainstreaming is a strategy for assessing the implications for women and men of policies and programs, treating gender perspectives as integral to the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic, and social spheres (United Nations [UN] 1997). Accordingly, whether on the national, regional, or international level, promising policies have statements that explicitly tie gender mainstreaming to social and economic development. For example, rather than a general statement about the importance of educating all citizens for the good of the nation, promising policies clearly and unequivocally identify women as a specific policy category, stating that women must be educated in general—and, for our purposes, in STEM in particular—to enhance a country’s growth and international competitiveness.
Sustainability and Institutionalization
Sustainability and institutionalization are inextricably intertwined. Promising policies are sustainable—i.e., they can be maintained and supported over time relative to policy implementation, goals, and outcomes. In this sense, sustainable development policies meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (UN 1987). Thus, promising policies that focus on, for example, improving education for all, as well as enhancing women’s participation in science and technology, are strategies for more sustainable development (Cohen 2006). Promising policies are sufficiently flexible to adjust to economic, legal, social, and political changes in the policy environment. Moreover, such policies are institutionalized—i.e., they become part of the standard operating processes and procedures of an organization or country.
Promising policies also can provide general models for action in terms of plan, rationale, and intervention. From these policies, certain principles and processes can be adapted and applied across contexts and geographic boundaries. The international context is strategically significant for regional and national organizations operating as policy actors and sources of policy ideas, policy agenda setting, and policy formulation, implementation, and evaluation. Similarly, national and regional level policies can inform and drive policies in other countries and regions around the world.
As exemplified in Figure E-9-1, these analytical dimensions are reflected in substance and action through various organizations and stakeholders operating at different levels of analysis, effecting policy through relational processes and interaction. Note that, although we emphasize policy processes in countries and organizations at national and international levels, these dimensions and considerations are applicable across institutional settings. Thus, policy concerns at provincial or local levels and within specific agencies and organizations (e.g., universities and firms) can be approached in similar ways, especially given questions of horizontal and vertical policy implementation.
FIGURE E-9-1. Examples of Policy Levels of Analysis and Actors
Moreover, the international context can provide leverage for and lend credibility to policies being proposed in individual and/or groups of nations. Frequently, initiatives begun by some component of the UN are adopted by individual nations and/or consortia of nations.
Similarly, regional organizations can be sources of policy ideas and models for individual members. For example, to belong to the European Union, a country agrees to participate in/adopt certain policies, programs, and platforms as a condition of membership.
Based on a review of representative policies, we identified the major defining characteristics of promising policies that focus on enhancing and increasing women’s participation in STEM, with particular applicability to chemistry, computer science, mathematics and statistics. Using these characteristics, we developed an operational framework for a comparative assessment of promising national policies. As an illustration, Table E-9-1 presents a simplified view of relevant policy characteristics in selected countries drawn from individual policy case studies.
TABLE E-9-1. Examples of Major Promising Policy Characteristics in Selected Countries
|Informed and Driven by Data||Monitoring||Gender
Policy Challenges and Opportunities
Although arguments abound that no country can afford to exclude more than half of its population—women—from its STEM education and workforce processes, the situation has remained critical with rampant disparities still apparent to varying degrees across countries. Although some lack of awareness of the significance of the role of women in STEM for development exists, there is a general recognition that “the difficulties encountered by women, constituting over half of the world’s population, in entering, pursuing, and advancing in a career in the sciences and in participating in decision-making in science and technology should be addressed urgently” as fundamental issues of national development and progress.5 Yet, around the world, women are still underrepresented in STEM education and training, in research and development, in STEM careers, and in related policy and decision-making positions (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] 2003, 2004). Accordingly, several policy challenges remain relative to increasing female involvement in STEM fields.
Remaining foremost among policy challenges across various countries are activities aimed at strengthening STEM education for all parts of their populations and facilitating the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in the STEM workforce (UNESCO 2007). Although some variation exists by country and field, STEM disciplinary cultures— especially in chemistry, computer science, and mathematics and statistics—have reflected male bias, as indicated by the marginalization and low enrollments of women in STEM in universities and research institutions. Not surprisingly, when allowed the opportunity, girls and women evince high performance in STEM fields across the board (European Commission [EC] 2000).
5 From UNESCO’s Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge (in Cetto 2000, p. 466).
However, even in countries where more women are increasingly earning advanced degrees in STEM fields, for the most part those increases are not reflected in the STEM professions themselves; the STEM sector loses vital female participation postgraduation, showing the need for policy action (cf. Blättel-Mink 2009, p. 105). Moreover, while female degree attainment in STEM fields has increased in many countries, many of the world’s women still face social, cultural, and economic barriers to participation. To break these barriers, policies reflecting government commitment and support are crucial.
Social and cultural barriers represent some of the greatest impediments to gender equality in the sciences. Related norms dictating preferential treatment of boys and men and general discrimination and disparaging attitudes towards females create negative situations for advancing women in science. In many countries, girls and women are discouraged and even physically prevented from educational attainment and workforce participation. Despite recommendations against gender bias, especially for promoting development, it is not unusual for females to be socially disadvantaged in STEM attainment. In many countries, the problem is not merely to attract women to STEM fields, but, even more to the point, to transform male (and female) attitudes and to remove other societal barriers and constraints to their participation in STEM. Because politics sets the context for policy action, the interests of different stakeholders may not be aligned and may even be antithetical to one another. Consequently, successful policy-making often must be treated as a balancing-act.
Also prominent on the policy agenda is the need to develop analytical frameworks and to collect relevant and reliable data to account for the complexity of the relationships between STEM education and the STEM workforce and to assess the impact of specific policy efforts. Valid metrics and expanded relevant data collection are crucial for effective policy planning and for both monitoring and evaluating policy initiatives. Development strategies have been based on policies aimed at promoting gender equity and eliminating STEM gender disparities, and reliable data are essential for policy development and assessment at all levels. The European Commission has gone a long way in developing metrics to assess gender equality in science and technology, and indicates that “the presence of certain equality measures is linked with the rates of participation of women in science” (EC 2008, p. 8).
With both developed and developing countries asserting the need for STEM experts, policies cannot be confined to working only at the national level (cf. Blättel-Mink 2009). National and international networks are critical for the institutionalization and diffusion of promising policies and effective efforts. While acknowledging striking differences among countries and regions in regard to gender participation in STEM and society more generally, international and regional groups can promote the formulation of STEM development policies that encompass gender considerations. Accordingly, international organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental, play especially significant roles in networking and policy diffusion. As an international organization, UNESCO has long been committed to promoting equal access to education, to increasing the participation of women in STEM fields, and encouraging their access to scientific and decision-making bodies. Thus, for example, recognizing that women’s talents have been underrecognized and underutilized in most countries, UNESCO has promoted the establishment of national committees on gender, science, and technology for assessing and promoting gender mainstreaming in STEM-related policies. While its member states ostensibly have signed on to pursue related policies, their capacity to follow through, not to mention their political and institutional will to do so, can vary widely.
Again, it is generally acknowledged that realizing the potential of science and technology for national socioeconomic development requires using all segments of a country’s population (UNESCO 2007). However, women remain the least incorporated into the STEM workforce, which translates into a significant loss of scientific human capital for development.
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