Latvia: Emerging Europe’s women in STEM champion

Latvia leads the EU when it comes to the number of women in science and tech.

For some time the European Union has sought to improve its wide gender imbalance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). According to the European Commission, just 13 per cent of the bloc’s workers in STEM-related careers are female.

However, there are some outliers, and most are in emerging Europe.

Latvia leads the way

The high female presence in Latvia’s white-collar sector has been attributed by some to the high number of women in society as a whole – according to the World Bank, women make up 54.07 per cent of the total Latvian population. However, this does not take away from the fact that Latvia has been incredibly successful in creating an environment where women are given an equal chance to succeed in their career of choice. While all countries in emerging Europe, including Central Asia, have a higher female than male population, Latvia is the only country in the region (and among only eight in the world) to achieve the perfect score of 100 in the World Bank’s latest report looking barriers to women’s economic participation.

Research is one just one field where women lead the way in the Baltic country.

The percentage of women working as researches in the European Union as a whole is just 33.4 per cent, according to a European Commission She Figures report from 2018. In Latvia however, 51 per cent of researchers are female. Other countries in emerging Europe also perform well: indeed, of the best-performing countries in the report, the top five are all emerging European countries. In second place is Lithuania where 50.7 per cent of researchers are women, followed by Croatia with 48.9 per cent, Bulgaria with 47.9 per cent, and Romania with 46.2 per cent. The only countries from the region below the EU average are Hungary, where only 30.8 per cent of researchers are female and Czechia with 26.9 per cent.

Latvia is also among four EU states where the majority of scientists and engineers are women. Lithuania has the highest percentage, 57 per cent, Bulgaria and Latvia – 52 per cent, and Denmark – 51 per cent. However, four emerging Europe countries are also amongst those bellow the EU average of 41 per cent. In Romania 40 per cent of scientists and engineers are female, in Czechia and Slovakia – 39 per cent, and just 30 per cent in Hungary.

While these impressive numbers point towards gender equality in STEM disciplines in Latvia, the country still falls short owing to its gender imbalance. With over eight per cent more women than men, Latvia has the highest number of women as a share of the total population of any country in the world.

Latvia’s high percentage of women is in line with the rest of emerging Europe. In only 11 countries worldwide do women account for more than 52 per cent of the population, and nine are emerging European states. The World Bank report on the issue attributes this to the region’s huge gap between life expectancy for men and women.

‘Latvian man shortage’

According to a BBC article from 2010 about what it calls the ‘Latvian man shortage’, this gender imbalance could be resulting in higher levels of competitiveness and ambition among women, while discouraging the same in men. While 54 per cent of Latvian women have completed higher education, only 30 per cent of Latvian men have done likewise. This is the highest gender discrepancy in the OECD, according to 2018 data from the organisation. Eurostat meanwhile shows that in 2017 Latvia also leads the EU in the share of women in managerial occupations (56 per cent), in the civil service (73 per cent), and in education (87 per cent).

Ensuring equal opportunities for female participation in STEM is especially vital for the EU, for as well as being the most unequal sector in terms of gender, it is also one of the five sectors in which the EU is experiencing a considerable skill shortage, according to a 2016 briefing from the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training.

This has prompted a number of EU countries with low levels of female employment in science and technology-related fields to take decisive action in tackling the issue. The Netherlands, which was in last place in the She Figures research, has gone to great lengths to encourage more women to join the sciences. For example, from June 2019, the Eindhoven University of Technology made all of its job vacancies available only to women for 18 months.

While Western European states are investing considerable resources in encouraging women to peruse a career in STEM, it appears that women in emerging Europe already have high levels of interest in the field.

According to Eurostat data from 2019 on human resources in science and technology, 68.5 per cent of Latvian women aged from 25 to 64 with a university-level education are employed as professionals or technicians in one of the fields in question. This is, once again, the highest percentage in the EU and significantly higher than the bloc’s average of 57.4 per cent. All top 10 countries for female employment in these fields are in emerging Europe, including Lithuania (67.8 per cent), Estonia (64.1 per cent), Slovakia (63.7 per cent), Poland (63.4 per cent), Bulgaria (62.8 per cent), Slovenia (61.4 per cent), Romania (60.8 per cent), Hungary (60.7 per cent), and Croatia (59.7 per cent), followed by Germany (59.1 per cent) and Finland (58.5 per cent).

Many explanations have been proposed as to why women in most regions around the world tend to be much less likely to have a profession in STEM than men. However, this does not appear to be such a considerable issue in emerging Europe, and Latvia in particular.

On the other hand, the low salaries in a high number of STEM related positions in emerging Europe, especially in comparison to those in the rest of the EU, appear to be pushing women educated in a related field to pursue a career outside of the region.

As such, as with most job sectors, while emerging Europe is producing high numbers of skilled individuals, poor working conditions are preventing them away from realising their potential in their own countries.

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