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Global “Knowledge Divide” Putting Women at Disadvantage, Researchers Say

Despite gains over the past decade, women globally lag behind men in Internet usage, the science and engineering workforce, and leadership positions, reflecting a troubling divide in the emerging knowledge economy.

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Despite gains over the past decade, women globally lag behind men in Internet usage, the science and engineering workforce, and leadership positions, reflecting a troubling divide in the emerging knowledge economy, according to research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.

The preliminary findings, outlined at a networking event for minority and women scientists and engineers, show that while Internet usage is rising generally, women use it less than men in all of the countries and regions studied. And women are far outnumbered by men in the science and engineering workforce and the Internet technology workforce, and in leadership positions in business, government, and science academies.

“Not only are women on the wrong side of the digital divide in general, they’re also on the wrong side of the knowledge divide,” said Sophia Huyer, executive director of WIGSAT, a non-profit international consulting group. “Not only do they have less access to information and technology, they have less access to resources, to education, to employment, and to the opportunity to be entrepreneurs.

“As the world moves more and more to a knowledge society, women stand a chance of being increasingly disadvantaged.”

The annual networking event, held 18 February in Vancouver, British Columbia, was organized by AAAS Education and Human Resources and was attended by over 150 people. It received key support from Bosch, a company with 300,000 employees worldwide that brings a strong focus on sustainability to automotive and industrial technology, consumer goods, and building technology.

“Addressing the complex issues which face us today and preparing for those of tomorrow is no easy task,” Angela Dragan, Bosch manager for government projects, told the AAAS audience. “It requires a careful orchestration of a passionate, highly sophisticated, multidisciplinary team. And its success will rely on embracing the value of diversity because these grave issues cannot be solved from one perspective alone.”

WIGSAT, based in Brighton, Ontario, promotes strategies that support the engagement of women—especially women in developing countries—in science, technology, and innovation. The research project is a joint initiative of WIGSAT and the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), a network to unite women scientists from the developing and developed worlds with the objective of strengthening their role in the development process and promoting their representation in scientific and technological leadership. Data analysis and software support was provided by the online analytics platform, and funding by the Elsevier Foundation.

The preliminary research results also were discussed at a 16 February Annual Meeting workshop, “A Global Movement in Support of Inquiry-based Science Education.”

The WIGSAT study focuses on six countries and one region: Brazil; the European Union; India; Indonesia; South Africa; South Korea; and the United States. Most of the data is from the years 2000-2010.

The study authors acknowledged that data from some countries was limited, and urged development of more extensive data for use in policymaking. But the available information offered a striking picture of women often struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing economy of the early 21st century.

“We know that there are a lot of issues in women’s lives that affect their ability to participate—family lives, their position in society, their ability to make their own choices in life,” said Huyer.

A key example: In India, laws allow women equal access to property and other resources, and yet, only 15% of women have a bank account. “It will really affect the ability of women to start their own business, to go to school, and to make their own decisions in the family, if they always have to go to their husbands or their fathers for money,” Huyer said. “It is these things that really affect women’s ability to participate.”

Among the study’s key findings:

  • Internet usage: In every country and region studied, women had a lower rate of Internet usage than men. In some nations—the United States and the European Union—usage is high and the gap is relatively small. The gap is small in Brazil, too, but only about 40% of all respondents use the Internet. In Indonesia, it appears the gap is growing.
  • Science and engineering workforce: In the United States, women comprised one-third of the S&E workforce in 2005, but the number ticked down slightly over the next five years. But in India and South Korea, the number has hovered closer to 10%; in no other nation do women account for more than 18% of the S&E workforce. Similarly, women made up less than 28% of the Internet technology workforce in 2010, according to data available for the countries covered in the study.
  • Management and government: Women’s representation in scientific decision-making, as measured in science academies, is under 12% in four of the five countries studied; only in Brazil do women do better, holding 28% of decision-making positions in science. Similarly, the study found, women’s participation on major corporate boards is “very low” in the countries surveyed. The rate in the United States and South Africa was near 15%, but in other nations women account for less than 10% of corporate board members. Women in the United States score 60% of high-ranking management and administrative positions in government and business, but in other nations the number is well below 50%.

“It’s now becoming clear that science and technology are absolutely critical for development,” said event moderator Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. “We really have to put science and technology back on the table in terms of solutions that we have to the world’s problems. And we have to have all people included in meaningful ways in order to be really be able to achieve that.”

Dragan, in her remarks to the AAAS audience, detailed Bosch’s commitment to sustainable technology, from drive systems for electric-hybrid vehicles and gear boxes for wind turbines to tankless hot water heaters and other energy-efficient building technologies. This year, she said, Bosch will spend over $5 billion on research and development globally—with about 45% of that focused on products that help to enhance energy efficiency and protect the environment.

“Around the world, research is underway and interventions are being explored to alter our current trajectory, which, unless addressed, will lead us into irreparable environmental and energy instability,” Dragan said. “While we are looking inward for ways to promote innovation, it is just as important for those of us in the private sector to do everything we can to support innovators of the future.”

Last year, in recognition of the company’s 125th anniversary, Bosch launched an eight-year, $10 million initiative that will provide U.S. universities with research grants and college students with internships in the fields of environment, energy, and mobility.

This year, Bosch is launching a new U.S. foundation, the Bosch Community Fund, which will distribute up to $3 million annually in grants, including those focused on science, technology, and environmental education.

The company is also increasing support of K-12 schools to help younger students learn scientific concepts and get hands-on experiences “that better prepare them for a future of technology and innovation,” Dragan said. “Our goal is to help students become smarter consumers, more capable technicians, better innovators, and hopefully future scientists. Because, much like the Olympic Games, we eventually must pass on the torch.”

Norman E. Johnson, director of government affairs for Bosch, said in an interview that community service also provides both scientific and business benefits for the company. “Bosch is a company that in its mission, first and foremost, wants to be a sustainable company—sustainable in perpetuity into the future,” Johnson said. “The Bosch board and our management recognize that the company can’t be sustainable if society is not sustainable.”