Gender equality in the knowledge society: will it deliver?

Résumé / AbstractThe Gender Equality – Knowledge Society (GE&KS) indicator framework was developed to assess women’s participation in national knowledge societies around the world. It brings together sex-disaggregated data on key areas in the knowledge society (ICT, science, technology and innovation) with gender indicators of health, economic and social status to assess the barriers and opportunities for women’s potential to benefit. It is based on an earlier review led by the author on women’s participation in the global information society, measured in terms of access and use to ICT. The review found that in most countries of the world a gender digital divide exists despite the rate of internet and ICT use overall in a country.  In 2012 the GE&KS indicator framework was used to measure the participation of women in seven knowledge-based societies:  Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, the US and the EU. The major finding was that the gender knowledge divide continues to exist, even in countries which have a highly-developed knowledge society. Women do not participate with men on an equal basis in any of the countries studied. It was also found that sex-disaggregated data is not consistently collected in most countries, but the data that does exist indicates that women’s participation in science, technology and innovation fields is generally low and declining, with female representation in engineering, physics and computer sciences below 30% in all the countries reviewed. The studies also demonstrate that GDP does not necessarily correlate with gender equality in a country or female participation in a national knowledge-based economy.


Much has been said about the gender digital divide[1]. Recent ITU data indicate that it continues to exist: as of 2013,  37% of women worldwide are online, compared with 41% of all men –  1.3 billion women and 1.5 billion men. The gender gap is most pronounced in the developing world, where 16% fewer women than men use the Internet, compared with 2% fewer women than men in the developed world[2].


We know there is a gender digital divide – but what about the gender knowledge divide?

There is little understanding of the implications for gender equality and for economic development of the participation (or lack of) of women in the knowledge society.


As defined by UNESCO, the knowledge society moves beyond the information society, involving expanded capabilities to identify, produce, process, transform, disseminate and use information to generate and apply knowledge for human development[3]. It is made possible by the information society, which is centred on the concept of ‘technological innovation’, or the ability of society to use and develop technologies to promote the generation and dissemination of information and data. The implications of the information society are wide-ranging and transformative of economies, involving rapid flows of finance and data, and information exchanges.


But while it is built on the base of the information society, the knowledge society is a larger system of networks, knowledge access, knowledge production and exchange among people and institutions, professional and technical workers, researchers and industry. It is characterised by:


  • A highly educated populace with knowledge workers making up an increasing proportion of the labour force –  researchers, scientists, information specialists, knowledge managers and related workers;
  • Industry which produces products with integrated artificial intelligence;
  • Transformation of national organizations – private, government and civil society – into learning organizations;
  • Increased digitization of  knowledge stored in data banks, expert systems, organizational plans, and other media;
  • Multiple centres of expertise which interact for multi-centric production of knowledge; and
  • A culture of knowledge production and knowledge utilization[4].


A knowledge society is closely tied to a « knowledge economy », where growth, development, and innovation are based in rapid exchanges, cross-border and cross-sector networks and development through information and information products. This leads to a decrease in the significance of the agricultural and manufacturing sectors in favour of service and knowledge-based industries. Emphasis for the knowledge worker is on individual opportunity and mobility, based in education and knowledge skills. Market competition is greater and expands beyond borders so that countries and corporations need to survive in global markets[5].


Many of the world’s governments have been grappling with the changes ushered in by globalization and the economic implications of the information society, particularly via the mechanism of technology. Some are more successful than others:  the tigers of South and east Asia, for example, have successfully made the transition, while others  – such as Brazil, Mexico, and Chile – are fast on their heels.


As remarked by the head of the Communication and Information Division of UNESCO in 2003, Waheed Khan, in the global development context the knowledge society is more than the transfer of information and data and the generation of economic growth. It is a larger process of « social, cultural, economical, political and institutional transformation », through the development of human and technological capabilities and the creation, sharing and use of knowledge for the prosperity and well-being of people[6]. Social and cultural transition is influenced by greater access to information with new forms of social interaction and cultural expression. At the same time, people gain more opportunities to participate in and influence the shape of their society[7].



From the gender digital divide to the gender knowledge divide


Developing a scientific and technological workforce as well as training human resources to understand and use S&T in the different aspects of their lives is an important path to developing an active knowledge society. To do this, countries must recognize the need to mobilize women and other underrepresented groups in science, engineering and technology (SET) and information technology (IT), and improve the ability of these groups to develop and apply technologies in areas such as personal health and nutrition, food production, water and sanitation, and energy.


Globally, the contributions of women are not fully integrated into their national societies or economies. Women’s contributions to sustainable socio-economic development as food producers and providers, owners of micro and small-scale enterprises, healthcare providers, household managers, educators and natural resource managers[8], are critical to achieving poverty reduction and the MDGs. However, women are poorly represented at all levels of decision making, earn less income than men in lower ranked positions (frequently in the nonformal sector), experience the effects of poverty more severely than men, and are expected to manage their activities with fewer resources.


A gender imbalance also exists in STI education, where males outnumber females worldwide due to a range of barriers for females such as their need for safety and security, teaching methods that favour boys, preconceptions that S&T is a male domain, and unwillingness of families to support their daughters at higher levels of education. Males outnumber females in technical and vocational education worldwide.  At higher levels of education the number of women in STI falls continuously from secondary school to university, laboratories, teaching and decision making.  There are consistently low levels of women in the skilled technology workforce in the private sector, with even fewer females in senior management and as leaders of large companies[9].


The global community has recognized that women are not gaining access to the range of technology and resource inputs needed to support their livelihood, domestic and natural resource management activities.  The World Bank notes that worldwide, female-run enterprises are less productive and have lower levels of added value than male-run enterprises[10]. According to the FAO, if female farmers had the same access to productive resources as male farmers (fertilizers, extension services, agricultural information, finance and land), their agricultural yields could increase by 20 to 30 percent, in turn increasing national agricultural production by 2.5 to 4 percent and reducing the number of malnourished people by 12 to 17 percent. If women’s paid employment rates were raised to the same level as men’s, it is estimated the GDPs of the United States, Japan, UAE and Egypt would increase by 5, 9, 12 and 34 percent respectively[11]. « Women’s roles roles as food producers, educators of their children, family caregivers and community managers will need to be underpinned by STI resources in order for countries to meet many of the MDG targets[12]. »


The author and colleagues at Women in Global Science and Technology (WISAT) assessed women’s participation in the global information society in the 2005 Orbicom “Women in the Information Society” project[13] as part of a global analysis of existing sex-disaggregated data on information and communications technology (ICT) in From the Digital Divide to Digital Opportunities: Measuring Infostates for Development[14]. « Women in the Information Society » made quantitative and qualitative assessments of women’s participation in the information society. It found that comprehensive sex-disaggregated ICT data across a large number of countries do not currently exist; however, some preliminary conclusions on women’s participation in the information society were drawn and impediments were identified. It also presented qualitative data indicating a number of trends and factors influencing women’s access to and use of ICTs and their active participation in the information society.


One of the major findings of the study was that the relationship between the gender digital divide and the overall divide is tenuous: the data do not support the argument that the gender divide will close as the overall digital divide is narrowed. As seen in the sex-disaggregated data presented by ITU of percentage of Internet users by gender in non-European economies from 2008-2010 (see Chart 1), there continues to be no direct relation between gender patterns in Internet use and national Internet access or GDP – the gender digital divide is real, it persists and it remains large. This is the case even as newer and more affordable ICTs gain ground: the Cherie Blair Foundation has identified a large gender gap in use of mobile phones, for example. Globally a woman is 21% less likely to own a mobile than a man, a figure which increases to 23% in Africa, 24% in the Arab world, and 37% in South Asia – leaving a total of 300 million women without such access[15].


Chart 1




A range of socioeconomic and political factors affect and frame the gender divide. Even in countries where access is no longer a significant problem and ICTs are widespread, inequalities in use can hamper women’s access, such as access options (from home, office or public access centres), labour force participation, government policies and socio-cultural norms[16]. The study found that while the ICT gender divide tends to narrow at higher levels of education, a gap remains. In addition to education, other factors that affect ICT use by gender are age, urban/rural location, access to resources, and ICT literacy. Sociocultural norms as well as lower rates of disposable income and lack of accessible content can hamper women’s access to and use of ICTs. In sum, women use ICTs less often, spend less time using them, engage in less diverse uses and are less likely to find jobs in the ICT sector, particularly in higher positions.


From the data which is increasingly emerging and data reviews to date, it is clear that women — particularly those in the developing world —  find themselves on the wrong side of both the digital divide and the knowledge divide. Worldwide, their capacity to participate in and effectively use science, technology and innovation is grossly under-developed and under-utilized. They are at risk of becoming increasingly marginalized in national knowledge societies and science, technology and innovation systems: not only do they have less access to information and technology, they are poorly represented in educational, entrepreneurship and employment opportunities. This is a problem from several angles – for countries working to establish a knowledge society which will increase prosperity and wellbeing – the lack of inclusion of women will inhibit progress and the ability of all citizens to benefit.  From a rights perspective, in order to promote sustainable economic growth, and to achievement poverty reduction and development goals, it is important to ensure that women have the access and the opportunity to design, create and take advantage of the opportunities of the knowledge society.

The Framework on Gender Equality and the Knowledge Society

Following the Women in the Information Society initiative, the National Assessments on Gender and STI studies were undertaken in 2012 to look at the key supporting and inhibiting factors and policies which affect and precondition women’s participation in the knowledge society, using the Framework on Gender Equality and the Knowledge Society (GE&KS). The GE&KS framework brings together gender-sensitive data on key areas in the knowledge society (ICT, science, technology and innovation) with gender indicators of health, economic and social status and other areas.


The framework was structured to provide a means of measuring not only the level of women’s participation in the information and knowledge societies of a country, but to understand the range of economic, socio-cultural, health and equality issues that affect their ability to enter or consider entering knowledge–related professions. Gender equality and empowerment are integrated into this framework because they constitute the base conditions for women’s successful participation in the knowledge society, involving the improvement of the political, social, economic and health status of both women and men.


The United Nations definition of “equality between women and men »


refers to the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys…Gender equality implies that the interests, needs and priorities of both women and men are taken into consideration, recognizing the diversity of different groups of women and men. Gender equality is not a women’s issue but should concern and fully engage men as well as women. Equality between women and men is seen both as a human rights issue and as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable people-centered development (UN Women, 2013)[17].



The UN notes that women’s empowerment is made up of five main elements: a sense of self-worth, the right to have and to determine choices, the right to have access to opportunities and resources, the right to have the power to control their own lives both within and outside the home and the ability to influence the direction of social change in order to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally.[18]


The picture of women’s participation in the knowledge society will be incomplete without some understanding of the context of women’s lives in a given country. What are women’s economic activities, participation in economic and political decision-making, knowledge and skills, their health, well-being, status and the conditions under which they live? No matter what the level of development or GDP of their countries, these factors all condition women’s ability to participate in the knowledge society, often in ways that are quite different from men. For example, women will only achieve equality the full range of gender equality rights, benefits and opportunities if they are change agents in their communities and can leverage resources and make decisions to achieve their personal goals.


Building women’s capabilities is another important ingredient. The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen argues that gender equality is a core development issue, as part of the development mandate to expand freedoms and capabilities for all.  As a result, development should produce narrowed gender gaps along with increased capability, expanded agency and choice and the opportunity to improve one’s life.  Sen took the view that women’s well-being depends on their ability to make choices for themselves which includes access to resources and opportunities such as employment, literacy and education, and property rights, and in turns promotes development in other sectors.  He noted that in the Indian state of Kerala, where there is a long tradition of women’s education and property rights, fertility rates were lowered more effectively than in China where a one-child policy was enforced by the state. Increases in women’s agency also proved more effective in increasing longevity rates, which are higher in Kerala than in the richer and more industrialized provinces in the north[19].


Applying the concept of gender equality to a knowledge society involves women’s ability to make decisions, exercise control and choices and manage resources in a way that allows them to affect events and circumstances around them. It can include the pursuit of scientific and technological design and innovation, use of science and technology to advance life and livelihood goals, or the use of skills and knowledge for entrepreneurial activities.


Access to education  does not automatically lead to opportunities for participation in S&T, participation in the labourforce or in decision making and leadership in society. Numerous studies have shown that getting more girls into science and technology education at secondary and tertiary levels does not automatically lead to increased numbers of females into the S&T workforce, or once they are there, encourage them to stay and advance to higher levels[20]. Similarly, getting more women into the paid workforce does not ensure that they will become senior managers, leaders or decision makers.


To connect up these dimensions of women’s participation in the knowledge society, the Gender Equality-Knowledge Society framework highlights the close connections among gender equality, the knowledge society, and sustainable socio-economic development. The aim is that comparative analysis of the GE&KS indicators will help to arrive at identification of sex-specific trends which can lead to better research, practice, assessment and evidence-based recommendations that will shed light on the closing of knowledge divides.


Framework indicators were drawn from the major international gender equity indexes and databases along with the major STI, ICT and knowledge indexes[21], with the aim of presenting a range of indicators that are relevant to the central policy issues, comparable and could be feasibly collected by national governments. It is organized into three sections – Inputs, Outcomes and Enabling Policies, each comprised of key data indicators[22].


An additional characteristic of the GE&KS framework is an examination of the role of enabling government policy and its implementation, including the presence of national legislation to reinforce international conventions. Among the dimensions measured are whether gender issues are integrated in key knowledge society areas of science and technology, ICT, labour and education. This is done to measure the extent to which government policy facilitates the participation of women in the knowledge society and the flourishing of their innovative and entrepreneurial capabilities. It is also important to examine the existence of policies to address preconditions for women’s participation in the knowledge society: childcare, accessible healthcare, flexible work hours, transportation and other policies that enable women to leave the home and enter the workforce. Particularly important is a country’s accession to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an indicator that signals the existence of legislation ensuring equal access, opportunity and freedom from discrimination in all areas of life. Related to this, the existence of arrangements to institutionalize inter-ministerial relations on gender will determine the degree of progress of gender mainstreaming in government policies and services, and the degree to which gender analysis is integrated into the implementation of policy and programming.





The Gender Equality – Knowledge Society framework was pilot tested in 2012 in a study of six countries (Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, USA) and one region (EU – as a composite for comparison purposes) and revised on the basis of the results of that study[1]. National researchers in each country analysed data available from national and international sources to fit the GE&KS framework, producing a situational analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data which can be viewed as stand-alone reports. Data from these studies were incorporated into the global online analysis platform developed by which produced the cross-national comparisons and rankings.


One of the main findings in the pilot stage was that sex disaggregated data in these areas is extremely scarce. Very few countries collect reliable sex-disaggregated data on a regular basis.  To address this gap, experts in the topic areas of the framework participate in online surveys, the results of which contribute to the overall rankings of the countries under study.


Results were analysed in three ways: Countries were compared per indicator to arrive at a set of comparisons for each data set.  Countries were also compared per « dimension », or block in the framework, in terms of health status, economic status, social status, etc.  Finally an overall ranking was compiled based on the results in each dimension.


Overall findings

The major finding of this study is that the knowledge gender divide continues to exist in all countries, even those which have a highly-developed knowledge society:  Women participate at much lower levels in knowledge society decision making and the knowledge economy than men. In the science and technology sector, only in the health and life sciences (education) are they represented equally with men, and only in some countries. In all countries, female representation in the science and technology workforce is lower than male. In all countries in this review – which represent the leading knowledge-based economies in the world – the knowledge society is failing to include women to an equal extent, and in some cases, their inclusion is negligible.

  • Numbers of women in the science, technology and innovation fields are alarmingly low in the world’s leading economies, and are actually on the decline in many, including the United States.
  • Women remain severely under-represented in the areas of engineering, physics and computer science — less than 30% in most countries. In addition, the numbers of women actually working in these fields are declining across the board. Even in countries where the numbers of women studying science and technology have increased, it has not translated into more women in the workplace.
  • Women have lower levels of access to the productive resources necessary to support active engagement in the knowledge society and related professions – property (land); financing; technology; and education.
  • In turn their representation in employment, entrepreneurship and research is lower in key sectors of the knowledge society.
  • Female parity in the science, technology and innovation fields is tied to multiple empowerment factors, with the most influential being higher economic status, larger roles in government and politics, access to economic, productive and technological resources, and a supportive policy environment. Findings also show that women have greater parity in countries with government policies that support health and childcare, equal pay, and gender mainstreaming.
  • The results show that access to education is not a solution in and of itself and neither is economic status. It’s only one part of what should be a multi-dimensional policymaking approach. There is no simple solution.
  • Women in most of the most countries under study are experiencing inequality of opportunity.
  • Most countries do not collect sex-disaggregated data consistently at the national and international levels. More data is necessary to inform the policies and programes that will allow countries to profit from the underutilized potential of their female population.
    • Indonesia and India collect and make available the least sex-disaggregated data in all sectors, including but not restricted to STI.
    • Little or no consistent sex-disaggregated data is collected in many countries in important areas, such as business leadership, heads of universities and research institutes, skilled emigrants, publication of refereed articles, rates of HIV/AIDS infection among female youth, and others.
  • While women’s enrollment in bio and health-related sciences is high in general, female representation drops dramatically in physics and engineering, and in the transition to the S&E workforce. All of these should be clear signals to policy makers for the need to address these consistent gaps in participation.
  • Women’s low level of representation in decision-making and in formal enterprises in the private sector is a shocking gap, and in view of the share of women in informal enterprises worldwide, is a glaring inconsistency that needs to be addressed. This is particularly important when one factors in the contribution that women make to poverty eradication and food security at the local level and in informal enterprises.
  • Brazil and South Korea may represent models for encouraging and retaining women in the science, engineering and technology workforce, but particularly in South Korea women’s participation in other sectors of society, including decision-making and the private sector, are of great concern. This indicates that economic and STI development that does not take women into account will in fact leave them behind.
  • We also see that women in countries with low levels of health and/or social status are behind from the very beginning, leaving those countries with additional constraints to women’s knowledge society participation that are very difficult to overcome. These can prevail despite an enabling policy environment. India and South Africa are cases in point.


Overall country comparisons

The national comparisons presented here are based on 2000-2010 data and preliminary results assessments. The following analysis presents comparative graphic results and forecasts based on data collected so far, which will be further tested by additional expert assessments. The future trends component of the graphs assesses potential ranking and improvement or deterioration in 2020 based on the Most Likely or current policy environment, and if all positive conditions are in place, the Most Favourable policy environment in view of existing trends. These rankings will be periodically updated and expanded as national experts in the GE&KS sectors contribute to the online assessment.




The European Union as a composite ranks first overall, and first or second in every dimension. This is a remarkable result, considering the wide variation among countries in the EU in terms of social support, GDP, and promotion of STI.


The United States and Brazil are essentially tied for second overall. The US ranks 5th in health, agency, social status. Its high overall status comes from a primary ranking in the opportunity and capability as well as the knowledge society decision-making dimensions – relating to educational levels of women and their positions in private sector decision-making. The US comes in second in economic status and access to resources but ranks lowest in enabling policies. While it ranks higher in other sectors, this finding indicates that a more favourable policy environment for the US could be an important strategy towards addressing economic competitors in other parts of the world and a strategy for regenerating economic growth after the economic crisis of 2008.


Brazil is ranked the highest of the so-called developing countries, coming in above even the Republic of Korea. It is third overall, first in women’s participation in the knowledge economy and science, technology and innovation, as well as agency. It is second in health, opportunity and capability and enabling policy, and third in social status, economic status and access to resources. This showing can be attributed to a range of factors, including a strong emphasis on addressing social issues and reducing social inequalities. Specifically gender equality and women’s rights have been a strong theme in the country, with steps taken to increase women’s rights both inside and outside the home, increase their participation in education and employment, and improve their access to contraceptives. It has also implemented substantive policies and programmes to support S&T education for all, including substantive funding to research and education. Brazil makes substantial investments in S&T: the budget for the S&T Ministry has increased by almost 300% over the last ten years, so that today Brazil makes the largest investment in science and technology in Latin America and the Caribbean – about 1.4% of its GDP. Its low ranking (4th) in knowledge society decision-making show where improvement needs to be made in addition to those areas where it ranks third. Interestingly, women spent more hours in unpaid work than men in all countries surveyed except Brazil. Brazil is an example of a country with a highly enabling policy environment for women as well as effective implementation strategies (see Abreu, 2012).


Indonesia is fourth overall, with an enabling policy environment and fourth ranking in most sectors which reflect a steady improvement over the last decade. However, of the countries in this study, Indonesia collects the least sex-disaggregated data, with data not available for many of the indicators addressed here. The scarcity of consistent sex-disaggregated data may change its ranking as additional data and expert analysis are incorporated into the national assessment. Its positive enabling policy environment does gives the country a strong potential for improvement, however current levels of economic status, access to resources, agency, health and social status indicate a need to improve the actual status of women in the country.


While it ranks first in health, the Republic of Korea comes in last in several sectors, including economic status, access to resources, enabling policy, knowledge economy and STI participation. This reflects the situation that even though it ranks third in opportunity and capability it sees a low level of female participation in public and economic life in both public and private sectors. This shows the country has failed to adequately support its women to participate actively in its economic success. While an enabling policy environment for gender equality in the knowledge society is well established and several institutes are working to improve women’s status in diverse fields including STI, overall a low level of gender awareness exists in the country. Diverse laws and policies are encouraging considerable development and rapid advance in gender equality in the country over the past ten years. After the new millennium, female participation in STI system has made continual gradual progress, however the share of women in professional fields remains substantially lower than that of men and is well below the average for member countries of the OECD. In private enterprises where the laws and policies do not apply, women’s progress has been slow, and the percentage of female-run enterprises is also extremely low. In these areas countermeasures for stabilizing women’s access to knowledge society are needed. There are gaps between the law and social understanding and due to pro-active measures such as quotas for women, male backlash against the policies often emerges. This picture demonstrates a glaring lack of correlation between national GDP and gender equality.


India ranks lowest overall and in most categories, except in economic status; knowledge economy, enabling policy; and health. While its enabling policy environment is positive and has been in place for many years, implementation and funding needs to improve before its women can equally benefit. The lower status of women in the country may contribute to India’s ranking as lowest of the BRIC countries in level of innovation, according to the Global Innovation Index 2012. The GII report notes that this is a result of « deficits in human capital and research, infrastructure and business sophistication, where it comes last among BRICs, and in knowledge and technology outputs, where it comes in ahead of Brazil only. » Ensuring that women in the Indian population are enabled and supported to improve their health, access to resources and opportunities, and develop capacity to contribute to India’s knowledge society is one obvious and immediate strategy for India to make up some of this gap. This can be achieved if national investment focuses on the key areas of health, education and skills development. Good quality employment and livelihood opportunities are also needed for youth, both males and females. There are definite signs of progress. It has achieved universal primary education enrollment for example and has a high rate of representation of females in the bio and life sciences. As well, with a labour force expected to increase by 32 per cent over the next twenty years, the country can improve its situation if it invests more in the key areas of health, education and skill development for better returns. In particular, it needs to ensure good quality employment and livelihood opportunities for youth, both females and males.


The case of South Africa (see Box below) is an example of a country which has made some good progress in improving the lives of women and men, and implemented sound policy to increase the representation of women and different racial groups in the public and private sectors of the country. It is often presented as a success story.  By using the GE&KS framework to integrate assessments the social, health, economic and other situations of the country however, a more accurate picture of the range of progress, and the groups which have benefitted most, will come through: while South Africa has made great strides in improving the status and participation of women, the rate of poverty, HIV/AIDS and violence in the country all affect the ability of women, and particularly non-white women, to benefit from its opportunities.


Box: Case study: South Africa[23]

South Africa ranks fifth overall compared to the other countries studied. Its results include the following rankings:

  • Second in knowledge society decision-making derives from comparatively high rates of women on corporate boards (14%) and as science academy members (28%).
  • Third in social status and fourth in science, technology and innovation participation after the US, EU and Brazil. This impressive ranking is likely a result of a strong educational system with high levels of primary and secondary enrollments, a policy focus on STI, and quotas in various sectors to promote diversity of participation by race and gender.
  • South Africa’s alarming rate of HIV in the female population puts it last in health, however.
  • Low rates of access for women to resources due to low levels of internet access for females (11%) and low levels of access to basic infrastructure such as energy and transportation in rural areas.
  • Overall participation in the STI sector workforce remains low.
  • Women remain severely under-represented in degree programs for engineering, physics and computer science.
  • Even in countries where the numbers of women studying science and technology have increased, it has not translated into more women in the workplace. While South Africa sees 45% representation of females in science and engineering enrollments, the numbers of women actually working in these fields is 16%, with 36% representation in the technician workforce.


In more detail, South Africa ranks first in women’s agency – or the ability to make choices, to have control over one’s life and to make things better for oneself and others – largely as a result of the high level of female representation in politics and government, with medium high levels of access to contraception. It is in second place in knowledge society decision-making with comparatively high rates of women on corporate boards (14 percent) and as science academy members (28 percent). It ranks highly (third of seven) in social status, science, technology and innovation participation, and in knowledge society decision-making. This is likely a result of a strong educational system, a policy focus on STI, and a quota system implemented in various sectors of society to promote diversity of participation by race and gender. However, South Africa’s alarming rate of HIV in the female population puts it last in health, and it ranks fifth in women’s access to resources due to low levels of access to basic infrastructure such as energy and transportation in rural areas as well as to the Internet. As well, its success extends primarily to a minority of elite women, predominantly from the white population.


1. Health Status

Since 1994 (the advent of democracy) there have been many health initiatives in South Africa for women, including the establishment of the right to legal and safe abortions and the elimination of user fees for pregnant and lactating women and children under the age of 6. Much work has been done to lessen the incidence of HIV/AIDS among women, especially in mother-to-baby transmission. However, the rate among adult women continued to rise between 2000-2010 while falling for adult men. Given the high rates of HIV/AIDS and maternal mortality, life expectancy for South African women is significantly below the world average and only marginally higher than that of men in the country. The Ministry of Women is actively promoting National Health Insurance.


2. Social Status

Sexual harassment and sex-related violence are major social problems. The government has passed substantial legislation to eliminate discrimination and implement positive measures towards gender equality. Women are able to challenge the application of harmful aspects of customary law. While violence against women is significant, it is dropping somewhat and is treated very seriously by government. More women are working full- time now – 54 percent of those who work, but they are also doing more hours of unpaid work than men. There are very few public or private facilities, assistance or arrangements for childcare. The country is developing a strong policy environment to support women.


3. Access to Resources

The government is actively trying to secure women’s ownership rights, especially to land, housing and credit. It is notable that women in South Africa have more access to cell phones than men, but the reverse is true of the Internet. Access to modes of transport is gendered, with the lack of transport in rural areas, where women predominate, posing life- and health-threatening conditions and limiting entrepreneurial opportunities. Access to electricity is also gendered: female-headed households in the rural provinces have the lowest access to electricity, at the same time that studies show a positive correlation between female employment and electrification.


4. Economic Status

Women in South Africa comprise 45 percent of the labour force, with a lower female labour force participation ratio than men. The unemployment rate for females is very high—as much as 60 percent among ages 16-24. Fifteen percent of women work as domestics in private houses, as compared to three percent of men. Fewer women than men are self-employed, but more women than men operate informal economy businesses (a classic stratagem of the marginalized poor to generate income). Male-headed households do better on all measures, with women earning 60 percent of male-earned income. Only in the category of domestic workers (the lowest wage category) are women’s wages equal to those of men. Government has been encouraging agricultural co-operatives, in which women comprise the majority of members. Women are the major beneficiaries of social grants, which provide a social security net. However, the condition of women, especially rural women, has not improved measurably.


5. Women’s agency

Women are well represented in politics and government in South Africa, forming 44 percent of the National Assembly in 2009. The party in power – the African National Congress – requires that every third person on party lists be a woman. In 2009 SA ranked sixth on the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, up from twentieth the previous year. Women, however, are not present in top labour union posts. Contraceptive prevalence is up. Condom use among women 25-49 is increasing steadily, from 20 percent in 2002 to 58 percent in 2008.


6. Opportunity and capability

Nine years of education are compulsory for all, and slightly more males than females are literate. There are more girls than boys at both secondary and tertiary level. Many girls still drop out however, due to pregnancy and lack of sanitary towels. In view of fewer girls than boys passing math and science on grade 12 exams, a number of initiatives to improve this are underway. In skills training in the private sector women seem to be doing significantly more training in managerial, professional and technical occupations than men, but less in community and sales occupations. Women are at least half of skilled trainees in the public sector as well.


7. Women in Knowledge Society Decision Making

Women constitute 51 percent of the general population but only 22 percent of executive managers and 16 percent of board directors. More women are represented in decision-making positions in the public than in the private sector. The government has a target of 50 percent women at all levels of senior management; the country is on track to meet this target. There is a huge race gap in top management between the government and the private sector.


Women are greatly underrepresented in leadership positions in science where they occupy less than a quarter of such positions, although South Africa shows the highest percentage of female members in this study in its national academy of science and ranks among the top worldwide. The figure of 17 percent for women as heads of universities is an improvement over the past, and there are several initiatives under way to improve the position of women in educational leadership overall.


8. Enabling Policy Environment

Gender equality is a core concept of the Bill of Rights embedded in the Constitution of South Africa (2003), with national machineries established to put this into operation. Government commitments are expressed in the National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equity, with leadership taken by Policy Coordination and Advisory Services (PCAS) located in the office of the Presidency. In 2009 a Ministry for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities was established, with objectives that include development of a bill to ensure 50/50 gender parity, the reduction of violence against women and the establishment of gender focal points in government departments. The government’s awareness of gender equity is highly advanced, but implementation is lacking due to limited human and financial resources.


9. Women in the knowledge economy

Larger percentages of women occupy administrative and technical support positions relative to managerial and professional positions, and women workers are still predominantly represented in community and social services. The ICT labour force is strongly gendered, with men making up more than four-fifths of the core ICT labour force. Women’s share decreased between 2000 and 2005 even as general employment in the ICT sector was increasing. Women comprise three-fourths of ICT end users (in administrative support and secondary ICT work). A legacy remains of women staying away from things technical. Factors include lower levels of access to ICTs by women and girls – especially in rural areas; absence of female role models; lack of guidance on ICT as a career area; and the fast-moving pace of IT that militates against workforce re-entry.


10. Women in S&T innovation systems

The SA White Paper on S&T (1996) made only brief reference to the underrepresentation and low participation of women in the South African science system. More recently a number of initiatives have started to ameliorate this situation. The Department of Science and Technology set up a special programme for promotion of women in science in 2002 (SET4W). By 2009 women still made up only 22 percent of those with undergraduate degrees in science, engineering and technology (SET) while comprising 57 percent of all university enrolments. As elsewhere, women are very well represented among doctoral graduates in both health and social science, with very few women graduates in engineering (15 percent in 2007). While women comprise only 16 percent of the engineering professionals working in the country, they make up 52 percent in biotechnology.


The share of female academic staff is growing but women tend to be appointed and concentrated at lower levels. It is notable that many PhD and research grants have age restrictions, militating against women re-entering the field. Most women researchers work at nonprofits, with the smallest number working in the business sector. An unfriendly-to-women work environment in the business sector is a significant factor in women’s career choice – especially as a result of gender-blind workplace policies and the masculine image of science. The percentage of women researchers in higher education is much lower among African than white women. Women comprise only about one-third of publishing scientists, tending to show a stronger commitment to teaching over academic research. There are several initiatives to support the development of female science students, academics and researchers by the National Research Foundation (NRF), as well as awards and support organizations (e.g. the Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering).


11. Entrepreneurial activity

Women tend to be around 40 percent of all classes (early-stage, new, established) of entrepreneurs. But in relation to the population, there is an overall low level of entrepreneurial activity. Initiatives are underway to develop and strengthen female entrepreneurship.


12. Women and Lifelong Learning

More women than men are updating their basic educational skills: 89 percent of all adults attending literacy classes in 2010 were female! Women also comprise a higher percentage than men at all levels of lifelong learning (adults 26+).



To address the high levels of poverty and marginalization among women in the country, South Africa’s best practice so far has been the provision of a social security net to an increasing number of beneficiaries, the majority of whom are women. However, many challenges exist, in particular the increasingly gendered nature of poverty; the fact that the condition of women has not improved measurably, despite government interventions and infrastructure injection; the lack of funding for women’s programmes; and the fact that rural women, children, people with disabilities and older persons remain the most vulnerable. Some of the strategies needed to address this include implementation of an integrated poverty eradication strategy, the targeting of the poorest families and marginalized communities with a basket of services; the need to strengthen the national gender machinery; and the creation of a special fund to support poverty eradication



Concluding thought

Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi’s comments as working chair of the March 2013 meeting of the Working Group on Gender of the UN Broadband Commission echo the main premises and findings of the Gender Equality – Knowledge Society work. Her view is that women and girls’ empowerment is not guaranteed by simple access – to ICTs, broadband or mobile phones. Instead, when we look for ways to bring women and girls’ empowerment, it is crucial that we identify the root causes for existing inequalities and exclusion.




[1] Detailed results of this study are available at Studies of seven more countries – three in Latin America and four in East Africa – will be initiated in 2013.




[1] See Nancy Hafkin & Nancy Taggart.  Gender, IT and Developing Countries, (Washington, DC: USAID, 2001), Huyer, Sophia, Nancy Hafkin, Heidi Ertl, and Heather Dryburgh « Women in the Information Society » in G. Sciadis, (ed.) From the digital divide to digital opportunities: Measuring infostates for development. (Montreal: Orbicom, 2005), and GSMA Development Fund and Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, Women and Mobile: A Global Opportunity (London: GSMA, 2010).

[2]International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures. 2013. (Geneva: ITU, 2013).

[3] UNESCO, Towards Knowledge Societies (Paris: UNESCO, 2005).

[4] Evers, H., « Transition towards a Knowledge Society: Malaysia and Indonesia »,  Comparative Sociology 2.1, 2003, pp. 355-373

[5] Evers, « Transition towards a knowledge society »

[6] Burch, Sally, « The Information Society / the Knowledge Society », March 18, 2013.

[7] Neil Butcher and Associates, ICT, Education, Development, and the Knowledge Society (GeSCI African Leadership in ICT Program, 2011)

[8]UNCTAD, Applying a Gender Lens to Science, Technology and Innovation (Geneva: United Nations, 2011)

[9] UNESCO, Science, Technology, and Gender: An International Report (Paris: UNESCO, 2007); UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), Global Education Digest 2011 (Montreal, Canada : UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2011)

[10] World Bank, World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2012)

[11] Aguirre, D., L. Hoteit, C. Rupp, K. Sabbagh, 2012. Empowering the Third Billion: Women and the World of Work in 2012. [Briefing, Booz&Co.]

[12] UNCTAD, « Applying a gender lens », p. 3

[13] Huyer et al, « Women in the information society »

[14] Sciadis, George, ed., From the digital divide to digital opportunities: Measuring infostates for development. (Montreal: Orbicom, 2005)

[15] GSMA Development Fund, « Women and mobile », p. 6

[16] Huyer et al, « Women in the information society », pp. 35-37

[17] UN Women, « Equality between women and men »

[18] United Nations Population Information Network (POPIN), « Guidelines on Women’s Empowerment for the UN Resident Coordinator System », UN Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, December, 2010.  See also Hafkin, Nancy and Sophia Huyer, eds., Cinderella or Cyberella: Empowering Women in the Knowledge Society (Connecticut: Kumarian Press, 2006)

[19] Blunden, Antony. Amartya Sen on well-being and critical voice (WWW, 2004).

[20] See UNESCO, « Global education digest », and American Assocation of University Women (AAUW), Why so Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. February (Washington: AAUW, 2010)

[21] See Huyer, S. and Hafkin, N. 2007. Engendering the  Knowledge Society: Measuring Women’s Participation.  Ottawa: National Research Centre and Orbicom.

[22] For the reasons behind the choice of indicators, see Huyer and Hafkin, « Engendering the Knowledge Society », p. 78

[23] South African Academy of Sciences (ASSAf), Participation of women and girls in the national STI system in South Africa based on the Gender Equality – Knowledge Society Framework. (WISAT-OWSD, 2011).