Q&A  | 

Mariagrazia Squicciarini, Head of Unit, OECD Directorate for Science Technology and Innovation

"[...] It is in economies with greater gender equality that females are most severely under-represented among STEM graduates."

Tags: 'STI' 'TIC' 'WPIA'


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Dr. Mariagrazia Squicciarini is Senior Economist – Head of Unit within the Directorate for Science Technology and Innovation (STI) of the OECD. She is responsible for the Working Party on Industry Analysis (WPIA), which develops indicators and quantitative analysis related to the changing determinants of growth and productivity, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), global value chains and jobs and skills in the digital transformation as well as digital gender divide.

She is responsible for the IPR-related data and analysis work carried out in the Directorate, and oversees the STI Microdata Lab initiative, a project linking micro-level data as firm-specific information, IPR- and scientific publication data for indicator and econometric analysis work. Besides, she chairs the OECD-led IP Taskforce, which coordinates the statistical and methodological work undertaken by OECD national and international institutions in the field of IP

Can you give us an overview of your work?

In my role as Senior Economist – Head of Unit within the Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), I lead a team of about 10 analysts. I mainly design, develop and supervise the implementation of quantitative analysis aimed to support evidence-based policy making, and to disseminate the results of the analysis performed.

My work encompasses a wide range of policy-relevant topics, all related among themselves. These are:

  • The changing determinants of innovation and economic performance, by firms and industries;
  • The role of human capital and of knowledge based capital (aka intangible assets) in shaping innovation and economic performance;
  • Intellectual Property Rights, their measurement, and their role as innovation policy tools
  • The digital transformation of firms and industries;
  • Labour market dynamics and skills demand and supply in the digital transformation;
  • The role of skills in shaping global value chains and the organisation of production worldwide;
  • The digital gender divide;
  • Artificial Intelligence, especially its measurement and the role of skills in shaping its development and adoption.

I am also responsible for the activities of the Working Party of Industry Analysis, which gathers experts from member countries to develop policy-relevant analysis related to issues mentioned above. I also lead the Intellectual Property (IP)-related data and analysis work and oversee the STI Microdata Lab initiative, a project linking micro-level data for indicator and analysis in support of evidence-based policy making.

Finally, I chair the OECD-led IP Taskforce, which coordinates the statistical and methodological work undertaken by OECD national and international institutions in the field of IP.

What do we understand under digital gender divide, and how big is it?

The digital gender divide is a tale of many tales. It takes many forms, some of which more apparent, other more subtle. The term “digital gender divide” is frequently used to refer to gender differences in resources and capabilities to access and effectively use ICTs within and between countries, regions, sectors and socio-economic groups.

That is: women and men are not equal when it comes to accessing digital technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet, nor in terms of the knowledge needed to use them.

Women still lag behind in their ability to access, use, and afford digital tools; women contribute only to a limited extent to innovation (also and especially in the digital space); and have a hard time pursuing their entrepreneurial endeavors, especially in tech-related domains. These are but a few example of the many ways in which the digital gender divide manifests itself.

Is it widening or diminishing?

Girls’ relatively lower educational enrollment in disciplines that would allow them to perform well in a digital world (e.g. science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] and information and communication technologies [ICTs]), coupled with women’s and girls’ limited use of digital tools and relatively scarcer presence or activity on platforms – e.g. for business purposes – suggest a potential scenario of widening gaps and greater inequality, especially in disadvantaged areas.

If one adds to this the fact that women receive comparatively less financing for their innovative endeavors and are often confronted with “glass ceilings” curbing their professional ambitions (especially so in tech industries), the picture that emerges is far from positive and points to a vicious circle that could lead to widening of digital gender divides. Worldwide, around 250 million fewer women than men are online (ITU, 2017).

While the global digital gender divide in Internet usage remained essentially unchanged (passing from about 11% in 2013 to roughly 12% in 2017), the patterns observed are worrisome as they point to increased inequality in Internet use between developed and developing economies.

The digital gender gap is evident with respect to e.g. Internet banking and to the extent to which women contribute to develop algorithms: women use and develop less software applications. This is especially worrisome since this means that women are not contributing as they should to shape digital means and to build a digital future that accounts for women’s needs and desiderata.

What are its causes?

The causes, which are deeply rooted in society, are often interrelated and affect each other. Among the key ones:

  • Hurdles to access (discussed above);
  • Affordability. Affordability not only refers to the financial resources needed to purchase and operate digital technologies but also to human resources. This includes the time needed to learn how to use digital tools. However, time poverty disproportionally affects women. Among other factors, this often results from the unpaid work that women take on within the home and the care they provide for children and the elderly.
  • (lack of) education and skills and lack of or low digital literacy and technological literacy. Narrowing the gender wage gap requires policies aimed to equip female workers with more self-organisation, management and communication, and advanced numerical skills; encouraging greater female enrolment in STEM-related studies and apprenticeships; and targeting existing gender biases in curricula and parental preferences.
  • time poverty, which hinders studying and acquiring the necessary competences or even entering the labour market; women spend 2.6 times more time than men on unpaid care and domestic work and this restricts the time they can spend in paid work or to upskill themselves.
  • security and safety concerns (especially online violence) which lead to less confident use of digital technologies.

Cyber-bullying, gender stereotyping and online harassment contribute to frequent reports that women do not feel safe or comfortable taking the centre stage online.

  • Inherent gender biases and socio-cultural norms. Socio-cultural norms engrained in many parts of society contribute to fuel the gender gap. Even in the digital era, textbooks remain core means of teaching in classrooms and while they could promote equitable attitudes, they often continue to convey discriminatory gender norms and practices.

Following a report by UNESCO, countries that score higher on gender equality indices, such as those in Europe, have the fewest women pursuing the advanced skills needed for careers in the technology sector. In Belgium only 6% of ICT graduates are women, while in the United Arab Emirates this figure is 58%. Following your opinion, why is that?

Recent evidence on the gender equality paradox suggests that it is precisely in economies with greater gender equality (measured through the Global Gender Equality Index) that females are most severely under-represented among STEM graduates (Stoet and Geary, 2018).

The average percentage of women among STEM graduates in each of the 67 economies that took part in the PISA 2015 study tended to be lower the greater the economy’s performance on the Global Gender Equality Index (WEF, 2015). Across the nine APEC economies with available information only around 27% of STEM graduates were women.

It has been argued that such paradox and the paucity of women training to work in STEM intensive sectors in general and building strong digital literacy more specifically reflects complex and interconnected differences between males and females in competences in different domains, their attitudes and self-beliefs, as well as selection effects (i.e. the very number of people graduating in different countries and the fact that higher proportions may emerge more easily when the overall number of graduates is relatively low).

Which policies should be undertaken to tackle this issue?

Well, in the two flagship reports we have produced recently [namely OECD (2018) “Bridging the digital gender divide: Include, upskill innovate” and OECD (2020) “The role of education and skills in bridging the digital gender divide – evidence from APEC economies” ] we have underlined a few such policies and, importantly, the need for a systemic approach to the problem.

Co-ordinated policy action can help narrow the digital gender gap. This requires raising awareness and tackling gender stereotypes; enabling enhanced, safer and more affordable access to digital tools; and stronger cooperation across stakeholders to remove barriers to girls and women’s full participation in the digital world.

Digital technologies provide new opportunities to make progress, but technological fixes cannot address the underlying structural problems that drive the digital gender divide.

Concrete policy actions are needed to foster women’s and girls’ full participation and inclusion in the digital economy, while at the same time addressing stereotypes and social norms that lead to discrimination against women.

To this end, three policy-related words are key: include, upskill and innovate (https://bit.ly/2xMx9K1).

Is the tech industry making enough efforts as to bridge the gap?

More can and should be done, especially to break the glass ceiling and get rid of the gender pay gap, among others.

Experimental indicators using information about a popular open-source programming language for data analysis, R, shows that about three-quarters (i.e. 77%) of the 12 000 R-based software packages created during the period 2012-17 were produced by teams composed of only men.

Women-only teams accounted for a mere 6% of such packages, whereas the remaining 17% came out of mixed teams of software developers. This warns about the fact that women are not contributing sufficiently to shape the future the way they want it to be, and are only to a limited extent involved in the transformation.

When it comes to patented innovations, we see, for instance that the relative share of inventions made by women in G20 economies reached 8.4% in 2014, compared to a level of 5.6% in 1994. Hence, while female inventors have been increasing their contribution to the development of ICT inventions, women nevertheless continue to play a relatively less important role in the development of technologies that are key in the digital era, and a relatively less important role of the one they play in other technological domains.

The share of inventions made by teams of only women represented nearly 4% of patents in the period 2010-15, compared to 3% observed in 2000-05.

If progress towards a greater participation of women in inventive activities continues to be this slow, women may need half a century to become equal partners in inventive activities.

How can the digital transformation contribute to greater gender equality?

The digital transformation provides new avenues for the economic empowerment of women and can contribute to greater gender equality. The Internet, digital platforms, mobile phones and digital financial services, among others, offer “leapfrog” opportunities for all and can help bridge the divide by giving women the possibility to earn additional income, increase their employment opportunities, broaden their networks, connect with others and, more generally, to and access useful knowledge and general information.

The digital transformation allows for much needed flexibility on the job for women, and may help address and remove stereotypes and socio-economic biases, if well used, e.g. for communication purposes and to make information gender-neutral.

What will bridging the digital gender gap bring for society as a whole?

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right. It is also a keystone of a prosperous, modern economy that provides sustainable inclusive growth. Recognizing that gender equality is essential for ensuring that men and women can contribute fully for the betterment of societies and economies at large is key. The cost of inaction is high and in the face of sluggish growth, aging societies and increasing educational attainment of young women, the economic case for digital gender equality is clear. Earning additional income, increasing employment opportunities, and accessing knowledge and general information, among others, benefits women and their families, thus enhancing the lives and well-being of people and of society as a whole. Greater inclusion of women in inventive activities is good not only for women themselves, but also for stronger economic growth and enhanced societal wellbeing.

Inventions arising out of mixed teams, or women-only groups, appear to have wider technological breadth (and may therefore be more economically valuable) and higher impact from a technological viewpoint than those in which only men are involved.