Unlocking gender equality in STEM

How improved parental leave policies for fathers could be key

Across Europe, women continue to be underrepresented in labour markets for science, technology, engineering, and maths. The economic costs of this imbalance are considerable: lost output, lower productivity and reduced innovation all harm economic growth.

To close this gender gap, a mix of policies should be considered. This includes parental leave policies for fathers. An economist’s understanding of the factors driving gender imbalances in STEM suggests that policies providing leave for new fathers can be an effective tool for redressing the balance. Looking at the evidence from countries with the most generous parental leave allowances for fathers, should we be considering policy changes help to unlock gender equality in STEM?

The STEM gender gap

Despite progress in recent years, women are still underrepresented in STEM-sector workforces throughout Europe.

In the UK and EEA in 2021, only 41% of scientists and engineers were female, even though women accounted for 47% of the total labour force. The extent of female representation varies by sector: it’s particularly low in manufacturing (21%) and air transport (28%), but higher in services (46%). There is no sector used by statisticians for the classification of economic activities in Europe in which female scientists and engineers are overrepresented.

Figure 1 EU female scientists and engineers by sector (% of total employed), 2021


Source: Frontier Economics based on data from Eurostat

Note: Data reports the proportion of total persons employed by sector and aged between 25 and 64 years across the EU27 (excluding the UK) that are female. NACE codes are the standard European nomenclature of productive economic activities and provide a framework for the collection and presentation (based on economic activity) of a wide range of statistics in economic fields such as production, services, technology, and others.

There are stark differences at the country level too. As the graphic below shows, only five countries reported a share of female scientists and engineers equal to or above 50% in 2021 (Norway, Iceland, Lithuania, Denmark and Bulgaria). Despite the progress that has been made on female representation in STEM in most countries since 2008, four countries continued to have shares below 35% in 2021. 

Figure 2 Female scientists and engineers in the UK and EEA (% of total), 2008 and 2021


Source: Frontier Economics based on data from Eurostat

Untapped economic potential

Closing the gender gap in STEM has enormous economic potential – this at a time when European economies grapple with solutions for kickstarting stalling economic growth. EU research estimates that by 2050, a better gender balance in STEM could lead to an increase in GDP per capita for the bloc of up to 3% (an increase in monetary terms of almost €820 billion), and an increase in employment of 1.2 million jobs.

An expanded STEM workforce would boost the pool of skilled female workers, which would also drive improvements in productivity and output – to the further benefit of growth and female economic empowerment.

Why is there a gender gap?

Research suggests there are two reasons why the STEM gender gap exists.

First, gender stereotypes dissuade women from pursuing education and careers in STEM. Research shows that engineers, scientists and mathematicians are seven times more likely to be played on screen by male actors than female actors. Gender stereotyping like this has a powerful effect on the academic and career choices of women. In the UK, only 35% of STEM students in higher education are women, dropping to 19% for Computer Science and Engineering & Technology courses.

Second, as women in STEM progress through their professional lives, they tend to drop out at a faster rate than men. This is known as the ‘leaky pipeline’, and it seems to be attributable to one main factor: motherhood. Among new mothers working in STEM, over 40% leave full-time employment after having their first child: nearly double the rate for new fathers, and above the economy-wide rate too.

The two mechanisms above are also interdependent: the shortage of female role models in STEM reinforces gender stereotypes in wider culture, to the detriment of women pursuing education and career opportunities in STEM. What ensues is a negative feedback loop.

To break that loop and begin to close the gap in STEM, the leaky pipeline needs to be fixed.

How parental leave affects female employment

Parental leave policies – particularly for fathers – could be an important tool in plugging the leaks.

Most countries focus their leave policies more on mothers than fathers. On average, maternity leave is almost three times longer than paternity leave in the UK and EEA. And longer maternity leave for women does have a positive impact on women’s employment rates – but only up to a point.

Research suggests that an ‘inverted U-shape’ relationship exists between length of leave and employment participation for women: in the first six months, the effect of longer leave is positive, but beyond that, maternity leave has an adverse effect on women’s wages and employment.

This suggests that, rather than focusing on mothers, opportunity lies in increasing leave for fathers. This could be achieved through better shared leave policies, through which some (or all) paid leave can be used by either parent. That way, the duration of leave taken by mothers can be optimised.

This is important, because evidence supports the positive contribution of paid parental leave for fathers to gender equity and attitudes towards primary care responsibilities. In Sweden, it’s estimated that each additional month of leave taken by a father increases the mother’s earnings by almost 7%.

Better leave for fathers correlates with better female STEM representation

The evidence gives some cause for optimism: across the UK and EEA, countries with more generous paid leave for fathers tend to have higher levels of female representation in STEM fields – particularly for the countries with the highest levels of female representation. .

The graphic below shows that, in 2021, of the fifteen countries with the highest proportion of female scientists and engineers, nine are among the most generous when it comes to leave allowances for fathers (Norway, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Portgual, Latvia, Sweden, North Macedonia, Poland, and Croatia). These countries typically offer a combination of leave reserved for fathers and additional shared leave that is available for use by mothers or fathers.

In contrast, countries with less generous leave allowances for fathers – like the UK, France, the Netherlands and Italy – tend to have lower levels of female representation in STEM.

Figure 3 Comparison of countries’ rankings for % of female scientists and engineers in STEM and weeks of full-pay equivalent leave available for fathers 


Source: Frontier Economics based on data from Eurostat and publicly available sources

Note: Rankings for % of female scientists and engineers in STEM are based on the % figure for each country as of 2021. Rankings for the number of weeks of full-pay equivalent leave available for fathers are based on publicly available information on parental leave policies across countries. Full-pay equivalent leave adjustments are made to correct for countries which offer paid leave policies at less than 100% of an individual’s salary. The number of weeks of full-pay equivalent leave estimated to be available in countries where leave is paid at less than 100% of an individual’s salary will therefore be lower than reported when not adjusting for the level at which leave is compensated.

A note of caution

While the evidence is encouraging, it comes with caveats.

First, a range of factors beyond approaches (and attitudes) to parental leave will be relevant for explaining cross-country variation in female representation in STEM fields.

Iceland and Denmark are a case in point: females account for the majority of scientists and engineers in STEM, yet leave policies for fathers are comparatively less generous when compared on a full-pay equivalent basis.

Second, parental leave policies will not be a silver bullet to redressing the gender balance in STEM.

Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia offer some of the most generous parental leave policies in Europe, but female representation in STEM remains low. Why? There may be issues with take-up of leave among fathers.

Data in Europe is hard to come by, but countries elsewhere are indicative. South Korea and Japan offer two of the world’s most generous paid leave policies for fathers, but take-up is low, and so is female STEM participation. In Japan, thanks in part to issues with corporate culture, only 14% of men took parental leave in 2021.

And we must remember that correlation is not causation. Take-up by new fathers and female representation in STEM may be driven by other economic and social factors. If that is the case, the patterns in gender equality in STEM observed across countries are less likely to be impacted by changes in parental leave policy.

Parental leave could be a powerful policy tool

Despite the caveats, there is an opportunity to improve gender equality in STEM by improving parental leave for fathers. Doing this, either directly or through shared leave, could help to shore up the ‘leaky pipeline’.

In the short term, this would slow the trickle of women leaving STEM jobs after childbirth. In the long term, if take-up can be incentivised, the benefits could be greater still: more female role models in STEM, fewer stereotypes in wider culture, and a sustainable flow of women into the sector. Both for female economic empowerment and for economic growth, this would be pivotal.