Written by Lara Brett

Women in STEM in the European Union – facts and figures 

This paper gives an overview of women’s participation within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and, Maths) in the European Union. It will discuss the barriers to such participation, current EU policies and provide further recommendations for closing the gender gap. 

‘STEM’ stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Globally, women obtain 53% of STEM university degrees (Sirimanne 2019), but in the EU only 34% of graduates in the field are women (Girls Go Circular 2022).  

In 2018, just 41% of the EU’s scientists and engineers were women (Eurostat 2020), and just 5 EU Member States had more women scientists than men: Lithuania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Portugal, and Denmark (Thornton 2019). 

According to The World Economic Forum, former political alliances may explain this gender gap. The Soviet Union and its satellite states in eastern Europe had “government-funded facilities” that facilitated women’s work in STEM. Moreover, the Forum argues that the gender gap in STEM is narrower in the Nordic countries, due to their comprehensive welfare policies that combat gender inequality more generally (Thornton 2019).  

However, how do these theories explain the glaring gender gap in Germany and Finland, where the former Chancellor had herself been a scientist (Thornton 2019)? 

The importance of girls in STEM

The European Commission predicts that Europe needs a further one million digital experts (European Commission 2019). By facilitating the entry of more women and girls into the STEM sector, the EU could increase its GDP per capita to 3% in 2050, improving the bloc’s GDP by up to 820 billion euros (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2022b), and generating 16 billion euros annually (Girls Go Circular 2022). Hence, increased women’s participation in STEM offers substantial economic benefits that could not only help the EU work towards gender parity but also combat the organisation’s economic woes, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Moreover, the STEM sector gives girls the opportunity to learn transferable skills that are both applicable to the rapidly evolving job market and to their day to day lives (UNICEF 2020). 

A UNICEF report argues that, as technology and economies adapt to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls must do the same. Excluding half of the world’s population from access to scientific innovation and digital skills, and from opportunities to shape these spheres for future generations, will prove profoundly damaging (UNICEF 2020). Hence, facilitating female participation in STEM from a young age trains girls, and helps to shape the world around them by working in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence and big data (European Commission 2019).  

Barriers to female participation in STEM 

Starting in childhood, girls and boys are socialised differently, deterring them from pursuing ‘difficult’ science and mathematics subjects (UNICEF 2020). Other factors may also be educational inequality, outdated teaching methods and curricula, and a lack of female STEM teachers in school (EQUALS Global Partnership, ITU and UN Women 202, UNICEF 20201)

Girls are just as likely as boys to work within the scientific sphere, but they account for just one in three STEM graduates (European Commission 2022a). There is a “gender-equality paradox,” whereby women are less likely to obtain STEM degrees in wealthier and more gender equal societies, such as in Finland and Sweden (Sosammon 2018). 

Experts have highlighted the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon, whereby the majority of Master’s students in science are women, but they tend to leave the sector at higher rates than their male counterparts (Thornton 2019). This may be explained by a gender pay gap and the lack of women in senior positions in the digital sector (European Commission 2019), which could discourage younger women from pursuing a career in STEM. 

European policy

For the 2019-2024 European Commission, youth employment is a funding priority, with €22 billion budgeted for this purpose (European Commission 2022c). Under the Commission’s Next Generation EU plan, €806.9 billion will be allocated as a temporary recovery instrument to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (European Commission 2022d). 

Regarding youth employment and STEM, EU policy appears to focus on getting women and girls into the digital sector specifically. A 2015 paper for the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs reveals that Europe has three main policy approaches “related to encouraging STEM studies and careers in Europe: a) curricular and teaching methods, b) teacher professional development and c) guiding young people to STEM” (Palmen 2015). It notes that unemployment within the sector is limited and that many workers are set to retire imminently, with 7 million job openings expected by 2025 (Palmen 2015). The number of STEM university graduates has increased across the board since the mid-2000s, due to “the expansion of higher education,” but nationally there tend to be fewer STEM VET (Vocational Education and Training) graduates. What is more, the report highlights two key issues: “the proportion of students going into STEM is not increasing at the European level and the underrepresentation of women persists” (Palmen 2015). This is demonstrated by the fact that STEM-related subjects accounted for 12.6% of subjects studied by female graduates, in comparison to 37.5% for their male classmates (Palmen 2015). Post-Brexit and Post-Covid, there is a clear need for updated research into this area, but the EU attempts to combat this gender gap through various policy initiatives, albeit mainly initiatives targeting women graduates rather than youth. 

All 27 members have signed the Commission’s Women in Digital Strategy, to facilitate women’s active participation in the sector (European Commission 2019). Moreover, the Women in Digital Scoreboard assesses Member States’ performance in areas such as internet use and specialist skills (European Commission 2021). The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) is the EU’s dedicated body for combating misogyny. It does not appear to offer targeted initiatives for increasing girls’ participation in STEM (European Institute for Gender Equality 2022a). In its Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, the Commission underscores the importance of overcoming the gender gap in research and innovation, especially through implementing equality initiatives for Horizon Europe (European Commission 2022b). The European Centre for Women and Technology (ECWT) is a partnership of over 130 organisations, dedicated to getting more women into STEM and ICT (Fatourou, Papageorgiou, Petousi 2019). 

Finally, the EU’s STEM Coalition, a network of national platforms, appears to emphasise STEM education, but not through a youth employment or gendered lens (EU STEM Coalition 2022).  

Programmes and platforms

Projects appear to be the EU’s main policy instrument in this area. 

In line with Article 13 (Encourage women’s participation in STEM) of the Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan, Girls Go Circular endeavours to tackle the gender gap in STEM and ICT. It aimed to have supported 8000 secondary school girls in eight European countries by the end of 2021, helping 50, 000 European girls become leaders in these fields by 2027 (European Institute of Innovation & Technology, 2021a). The project collaborated with the European Commission, Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture (DG EAC) in October 2021 for the first Women and Girls in STEM Forum (European Institute of Innovation & Technology, 2021b), bringing together thousands of stakeholders for discussion and celebrated the students who have already taken part in the programme (European Institute of Innovation & Technology, 2021a). Furthermore, the Commission funds the Girls in STEM project, which offers workshops to support participants’ STEM ambitions (Girls in STEM 2022). However, it is important to note that the timeframes for such projects are not always clearly defined, as websites may be outdated or poorly maintained. Campaigns may also prove controversial, as was the case with the 2012 video ‘Science: It’s a Girl’s Thing!’ This sparked criticism due to its intermixing of arguably sexualised images of women in short skirts and scientific paraphernalia (Huffington Post 2012). The campaign’s website was last updated in July 2020 but is copyrighted for this year, raising the question of whether promoting girls in STEM remains an EU priority. 

Policy recommendations

To this author’s knowledge, there is not a specific EU policy for girls in STEM. There are many initiatives helping women in the sector, but a clear policy gap for future generations. What is more, such policies prioritise the digital sector, at the expense of science, mathematics and engineering. Hence, the EU should create a specific youth policy, which lists gender equality as a priority and which aims to seal the ‘leaky pipeline.’ 

Experts recommend implementing gender sensitive STEM education (EQUALS Global Partnership, ITU and UN Women 2021, UNICEF 2020). Such teaching consciously addresses and revokes gender biases, taking into account the unique barriers girls may face to STEM, in particular those from marginalised communities. UNICEF emphasises that such practises “are grounded in real life problems and lived experiences” (UNICEF 2020), and they could be supported by after-school clubs (EQUALS Global Partnership, ITU and UN Women 2021). What is more, hiring and investing in the training of women teachers could provide girls with important role models (UNICEF 2020). 

One common theme in the literature is the promotion of partnerships between schools and employers, especially regarding vocational training (Palmen 2015, UNICEF 2020). This could take the form of career guidance, work experience programmes (UNICEF 2020), or specific STEM career days led by local organisations. Such businesses could also provide mentors (UNICEF 2020), or become future employers. 

On the whole, improving girls’ STEM participation in Europe requires comprehensive support from families, schools, businesses, and national, and European governance, but most importantly the willing and active participation of girls themselves. This author suggests establishing a network of local, national and European advisors: girls speaking to their classmates and teachers about what they would like to do and how that could happen. Failure to include girls within this process risks overriding their wishes and further marginalising them within the sector. 

On the whole, improving girls’ STEM participation in Europe requires comprehensive support from families, schools, businesses, and national, and European governance, but most importantly the willing and active participation of girls themselves. This author suggests establishing a network of local, national and European advisors: girls speaking to their classmates and teachers about what they would like to do and how that could happen. Failure to include girls within this process risks overriding their wishes and further marginalising them within the sector. 


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Huffington Post, 2012. ‘Science: It’s A Girl Thing!’ VIDEO By EU Commission Promotes STEM For Women, Sparks Outcry. Available from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/science-its-a-girl-thing-_n_1620235 [Accessed 9 February 2022]. 

Palmen R., 2015. Encouragement of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Studies: Labour Market Situation and comparison of practices targeted to young people in different Member States. Brussels: The European Parliament. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280298391_Encouragement_of_STEM_Science_Technology_Engineering_Mathematics_Studies_Labour_Market_Situation_and_comparison_of_practices_targeted_to_young_people_in_different_Member_States

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Sossamon, J., 2018. In countries with higher gender equality, women are less likely to get STEM degrees. World Economic Forum. Available from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/does-gender-equality-result-in-fewer-female-stem-grads [Accessed 9 February 2022]. 

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