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L. Costa1, Y. Lima1 , Ana Moura Santos2 ,G. Xexéo1, R. Prada2,3, J. Souza1

1Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (BRAZIL)

2Instituto Superior Técnico, University of Lisbon (PORTUGAL)



In the past few years, the gender gap has reduced globally but there is still a long road ahead until parity. At the current rate, it will take 99.5 years to close the gap globally and 59 years to do it in Latin America. In Brazil, female enrolment in tertiary education has increased but participation in STEM programs is still low when compared with their male counterparts. The gap in STEM education that is hailed as being essential for the future of work is a challenge that has to be tackled if the economic gender parity is ever to be attained. This study aims to present secondary data about gender equality in STEM in Brazil as well as a survey, based on primary data, of initiatives that seek to promote gender equality in STEM education in Brazil. The framework proposed by the UNESCO STEM and Gender Advancement project was used to collect the secondary data about gender equality and to present the initiatives. The results of our study can be used to compare the Brazilian case with other countries in terms of the current state of gender equality in STEM Higher Education as well as the initiatives to close the gender gap. The paper can also be used to help those interested in developing initiatives for gender equality in STEM to understand which problems they want to help to solve while comparing their goals with those surveyed in our work.


The areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) are considered fundamental for the Future of Work based on evolutions in technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Internet of Things, and many others that are part of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Being prepared as a society for an inclusive and just future implies providing Education and Work opportunities for all social groups. The distance between women and men is too big in terms of access to higher education in the field of STEM areas in unequal countries like Brazil. The analysis of the gender gap and the creation of initiatives that can help to reduce this problem is essential to move towards a more equal society.

The gender gap is being slowly reduced worldwide. At the current rate, gender equality should only be achieved in 99.5 years [1]. The situation is particularly worrisome in the STEM area. In Europe, for example, higher education institutions, such as those that are part of the Fostering Women to STEM MOOCs (FOSTWOM) project, care about the problem of low STEM graduates percentage and the consequent decrease in the number of women practicing professions in STEM areas [2]. In Nordic countries, the percentage of young STEM graduates is approximately 20% [3]. In Italy and the United Kingdom, this percentage reaches 30%, but there are few women who exercise a scientific-technological profession [3]. In many countries, there is a strong pressure for women interested in science and mathematics to go to the areas of Health [3].

Despite occupying the 92nd position in a ranking of gender equality [1], Brazil provides evidence that it still needs to take the first step of accepting that the problem exists and needs to be tackled given that 12% of people are against the increase in gender equality in the country while 21% consider that no change is necessary [4]. The challenges of gender equality in the country are found mainly in the sectors of political empowerment, given that the participation of women in parliament is only 15%, and in economic opportunities, where the number of women in the labor market has grown, but the wage inequality is still large [1]. A number that exemplifies the size of the corporate challenge in Brazil is that only 0.8% of companies have female CEOs and only 8.6% of the seats on the Boards of Directors are occupied by women [4].

Considering STEM education, the data on college students in Brazil show low participation of just 30% of women in STEM degrees. Observing the degrees that are not considered STEM, the number rises to 63%[5].

Given this context, this paper aims to present a survey, based on primary data, of initiatives that seek to promote the gender equality in STEM education in Brazil while comparing these initiatives with global ones reported by other papers and analyzing whether these initiatives focus on the country’s main needs in terms of gender equality. In order to reach this goal, the framework proposed by the UNESCO SAGA Survey of Gender Equality Instruments was used to appraise the found initiatives.

The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Section 2 starts with a discussion about gender equality where related papers about Education, mainly in STEM areas, are presented. In Section 3, we present the methodology of our secondary data collection and of our survey based on primary data of initiatives for increasing gender equality in Brazil. In Section 4, we present the results of the data collection and, in Section 5, we present the results of the survey. Section 6 concludes our paper with some final remarks.


The results of the PISA 2018 indicate that in mathematics and science, gender differences are generally small [6]. “However, in claiming victory for closing gender gaps in the cognitive skills of girls and boys, education may have lost sight of other social and emotional dimensions about learning that may have a stronger impact on children, when they think about what they want to be when they grow up” [6]

Among 15-year-olds assessed by PISA, only 1% of girls reported that they wish to work in ICT-related occupations, compared with 8% of boys who did, on average in OECD countries [6]. A recent report by OECD indicates that girls’ expectations regarding their future profession when they reach the age of 30, is mostly to be a doctor, followed by a teacher. The boys, on the other hand, reported that they would like to become engineers, followed by a business manager [7].

Globally it is possible to find initiatives that seek to increase girls’ interest in STEM subjects and STEM-related careers among high school students [8]–[12]. An example is an interdisciplinary network created in 2010 at the University of Zaragoza (Spain) that developed two projects aimed at high school students: “Wikinformática! in Aragon” and “Women in STEM by EuLES”. Wikinformatics! is a contest for groups of students in which a wiki is developed about women who stand out in the history of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). The objective of the project Women in STEM is to offer testimonials from women in the areas of STEM to stimulate scientific vocations, especially among young people and girls. The experiences reported by the women interviewed show the difficulties encountered in the field of work, but also highlight the changes that have been occurring in recent years in favor of gender equality, as well as the total satisfaction for having chosen to study in any of the areas of STEM. The projects presented bring high school students closer to the university and promote the incorporation of students, mainly women, in the first scientific and technical education courses [9].

Fashion FUNdamentals (FF), a STEM summer enrichment program designed exclusively for high school girls, based on worldview theory and research on the maker movement, suggests that “teenagers’ passion for fashion” can be used to develop their interests and skills in the STEM disciplines and nurture self-confidence and self-esteem. Data were collected through focus groups with 69 girls who participated in the program. The analysis revealed that the girls realized that participation in the STEM program shaped them in four main ways: expanding their understanding of the global textile and clothing industry as a STEM-based discipline, enriching their understanding of conventional disciplines of STEM, building a foundation for personal / social-psychological well-being; and, building a foundation for academic and professional success. The findings support that STEM learning can be promoted by linking educational content to subjects – such as art, crafts, design, and fashion – that girls often think are personally meaningful and engaging [10]

Gender equality is especially serious in Latin America, due to prejudices or cultural norms that influence women’s behavior. In this context, the W-STEM project seeks to improve strategies and mechanisms to attract, access, and guide women in Latin America in STEM higher education programs [12]. In Uruguay, there is a project with practical workshops for high school girls in robotics, electronic circuits, and information systems. Women tend to prefer other areas, and engineering careers remain a reticent space for women, the majority chosen by men [11]

In the case of Brazil, a review on the subject of gender equality in secondary education, especially with regard to the inclusion of young women in the STEM areas, shows that to advance on the issue of gender equality, it is necessary to act in all social contexts, economic and political life, including the production and development of science and technology. It is necessary, for example, to understand how gender differences are often rooted in narratives like “girls don’t like math” and “math is very hard”. In addition, biased practices and behaviors also increase gender inequality in social relationships [13]. In addition, the authors find that the main concern of recent initiatives in this field seems to be improving the performance of women in STEM Education, as well as looking for alternatives that can lead to gender equality in jobs in these areas. However, there seems to be no critical reflection on gender equality, which would imply reflecting on the social trajectories of men and women, including those obstacles that are not limited to the context of the career – such as family and child care, housework, etc. [13].

In Higher Education, there was an increase in women’s participation in the period from 1981 to 2006 with women surpassing men in terms of years of study in Brazil [14]. In 2010, this increase in women’s participation stabilized on 57% [15]. So far, this improvement in education has not translated into an improvement in women’s presence in the hierarchically superior positions in the labor market where men’s participation still predominates [14], [15].

Currently, the distance to parity (calculated as the female/male proportion) in terms of enrolment in Higher Education in Brazil has reached a score of 1.37, but when considering the graduates from STEM-related programs this number drops to 0.37 with the parity in Information and Communication Technologies graduates reaching 0.11 [16]. This persistent gender gap in STEM education shows the importance of continually measuring the gender gap and of surveying initiatives focused on reducing it in Brazil which is the goal of this paper.


The STEM and Gender Advancement (SAGA) is a global project launched in 2015 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) whose goal is to offer governments and policymakers a set of tools to help them reduce gender equality in STEM. These tools are focused on providing a common framework to survey initiatives and policies for gender equality in STEM as well as to collecting data that can be used to measure the gender gap in education and work [17].

The SAGA framework was used in this paper to survey the initiatives for gender equality in Brazil and to explore the data about the subject which is used in the discussion. The survey was based on primary data that was collected using a form that replicated the SAGA Policy Matrix. The data about gender equality was collected following the definition of STEM population given by the SAGA framework that determines which higher education degrees are to be considered STEM according to the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). We also used the SAGA Indicator Matrix that suggests a series of indicators that can be calculated to measure gender equality [18].

The data about higher education in Brazil used in this paper comes from the Higher Education Census, a database maintained by the Anísio Teixeira National Institute of Educational Study and Research (Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira, or INEP, in Portuguese), a federal autarchy of the Ministry of Education. This Census is the most complete research instrument about brazilian higher education institutions, students, and professors. The Census is carried out annually and currently its most recent edition is from 2018 which is the one used in this paper [19].

Another important source of information was the Annual Report of Social Information (Relação Anual de Informações Sociais — RAIS). RAIS is a data collection instrument of the Brazilian government that was established in 1975. Every year, companies with more than ten employees must fill in the RAIS and submit it to the Ministry of Labor. In the report, the company has to give information about its employees such as name, age, sex, birth date, level of education, salary, and occupation. Besides giving information about each employee, the company also fills in information about itself, such as its size, economic activity, and union contributions [20].


While looking at Higher Education in Brazil (Figure 1), it is possible to see that, in general, the female participation in terms of enrolled students is bigger than the male participation. In non-STEM degrees this difference is even more expressive as 63% of enrolled students are female. Nevertheless, when looking at STEM degrees, the situation changes dramatically as the female students accounts for only 30% of the total number of students.

Figure1. Gender Distribution in Brazilian Higher Education

The SAGA project considers the gender parity as acceptable when ranging from 45% to 55%. In Brazil, from the 122 STEM higher education degrees, just 13 of them are in this acceptable range of gender parity. Considering the 20 degrees with the most students enrolled, only three of them have reached gender parity (Table 1). In this list of the top 20 degrees, we can highlight the degrees from the Information Technology area as being the worst ones in terms of gender parity with percentages of female students ranging from 16% to an impressive 8% in Computer Networks.

Table 1. Gender enrollments in Brazilian Higuer Education

One of the SAGA suggested indicators is the total of female professors by subject. This indicator is presented in Table 2 where it can be seen that in terms of the total proportion of female professors in STEM-related subjects, we have reached gender parity in Brazil. Still, when we look individually at the degrees, it is possible to see that from 20 subjects, only four have gender parity with female professors being significantly underrepresented in subjects such as Engineering, Computation, Physics, and Astronomy – all of which have less than 30% of female professors.

Table 2. Faculty members by subject in Brazilian Higher Education.


Table 3 presents the results of our survey of initiatives for increasing gender equality in STEM in Brazil. The results are presented according to the framework provided by the SAGA Policy Matrix [18].

From the 25 initiatives presented, 7 had their information registered on our online form by their organizers and 18 were registered by the researchers. As it can be seen, only one initiative is organized by the government while most of them are organized or supported by companies and universities.

When looking at the instrument type, nearly all of the initiatives provide some type of STEM training for women and involve the creation and aid of technological poles, excellency centres or communities. Only two initiatives, “Meninas Digitais” and “Para Mulheres na Ciência”, provide scholarships or fellowships. Also only two initiatives organize fairs or provide technical assistance for women in STEM. The beneficiaries of the initiatives are, in all cases, students and exclusively women. The geographical coverage of the initiatives are state or national with only five of them being international.

The Science and Technology Gender Objectives number 1 from the SAGA Unesco is concerned with changing social norms and stereotypes towards women in STEM in society. All of the surveyed initiatives are somehow contributing with this objective. Another objective from SAGA Unesco that is related to nearly all of the initiatives is the objective number 7 which regards the promotion of gender equality in entrepreneurship and innovation activities. The objective number 3, women participation in STEM higher education, is related to 20 initiatives. Meanwhile, the objective less found in the initiatives surveyed is the objective number 6, concerned with gender equality in the policy-making process.

In terms of SDGs, we can see that, as one can expect, all of them are related to the SDG 5 which is concerned with the achievement of gender equality and women empowerment. Also, 60% of the initiatives are somehow related to the SDG 4, the one focused on inclusive and equitable education for all. Also a preoccupation for a third of the surveyed initiatives is the promotion of sustainable economic growth and employment for all (SDG 8).

Table3. STEM Initiatives for gender equality in Brazil

(1) Instrument type corresponds to the following categories: A – Technical Assistance; B – Scholarships/Fellowships; C – Training; D – Awards and Competitions; E – Creation and aid of technological poles, excellency centres, and communities; F – Donations (individuals/companies); G – Fairs; H – Trust; I – Financial Guaranty; J – Credit incentives and venture capital; K – Fiscal incentives; L – Loans; M – Information Services; N – Subsidy (non-reimbursable contributions).

(2) Beneficiaries” corresponds to the following categories: A – Research centres; B – Universities; C – Schools/Colleges/Institutes; D – Technical training centres; E – Public institutes; F – Professional institutes; G – STI public or private non-profit organizations; H – Private companies; I – Small and medium-sized companies; J – Cooperatives; K – Foundations; L – Local R&D groups; M – Ad hoc associations; N – University lecturers and researchers; O – Technical staff and assistants in STI; P – Students; Q – Individuals; R – Women (exclusively); S – Indigenous peoples and local communities; T – Disabled people; U – Minorities; V – Professionals/Ph.D.s.

(3) ”Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)” corresponds to the following goals: 4 – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all; 5 – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; 8 – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

6 Conclusion

In Brazil, the Federal Constitution of 1988 guarantees equal rights for men and women, with special emphasis on the labor market. For these rights to be effectively placed on equal terms between men and women, the path to gender equality goes through an effort that depends on the government, NGOs,educational institutions, and companies. Particularly in STEM, this path is being shown even more difficult to follow.

In addition to the challenges currently faced by women, such as the predominantly male language in educational, business environments, and in the general culture, the COVID-19 pandemic creates new challenges and aggravates previously existing ones. The current global pandemic and the social distance that it demands increased the obstacles to women in Science as they are more demanded in domestic and care work, “aggravating all the disadvantages that women already face” [21].

As the data presented by this study shows, there is a huge gender gap in STEM, even more in Technology fields such as Computer Science. Therefore, Brazil needs to invest in exemplary initiatives dedicated to the promotion of gender equality in STEM such as PyLadies (from the regions of Manaus1, Paraíba2, Sul de Minas Gerais3); Meninas na Ciência4; Ciência para meninas; Elas na Engenharia5 and Minerva Digitais6. These initiatives, as showed in our survey, are important for attracting girls to science and technology careers; fostering interest in the exact and technological areas; encouraging and supporting the participation of women in the technological area,; encouraging more girls and women to learn about programming; help more women to become active in free software communities; and encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM.

The results of our study can be used to compare the Brazilian case with other countries in terms of the current state of gender equality in STEM Higher Education as well as the initiatives to close the gender gap. The paper can also be used to help those interested in developing initiatives for gender equality in STEM to understand which problems they want to help to solve while comparing their goals with those surveyed in our work.


This study was financed in part by the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior
– Brasil (CAPES) – Finance Code 001.


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