Empowering women and girls in science and innovation is necessary because the world needs everyone’s brain power to realize the UN SDGs
Knowledge is not limited by gender. Indeed, more and more women – like Tu Yuyou, who became China’s first Nobel laureate in medicine in 2015 for her astonishing discovery of an anti-malaria therapy – are making incredible scientific advances.
And yet, despite this, there are far fewer women in science than men, especially in leadership positions. According to UNESCO, women represent only one-third of scientific researchers worldwide. And they leave faster than men.
We know that science and technology will create the best paying jobs of tomorrow. For example, globally, it is estimated that 80 percent of the new jobs created by the transition away from fossil fuels will be in sectors that are currently male-dominated. Unless women are equally represented, their views and needs may be overlooked, and thus the way our future is designed. This is especially true with the rise of automation and artificial intelligence systems, as they can replicate the biases of those who program them. Just consider that women currently make up only 26 percent of data science professionals worldwide.
Conversely, we know that increasing the contribution of women in science accelerates the consideration of more sustainable approaches to our everyday challenges, including for example in healthcare. It will also help close the gender pay gap and increase women’s earnings by billions – wealth that is more likely to be shared with their families and communities.
So I ask, what corrective actions can we take today?
First, let me address the gender stereotypes and expectations that steer girls away from science in their academic and career choices. Microsoft found that girls in Europe become interested in science, technology, engineering and math around age 11, but lose interest by age 15, suggesting that social influences are pushing them away. It also appears that there is often a confidence gap between men and women, or girls and boys, applying for STEM positions: PC maker Hewlett-Packard found that women would only apply for jobs when they met 100 percent of the criteria, while men would when achieving only 60 percent. These stereotypes need to be intentionally broken, with more female role models being deeply valued and their voices amplified.
Second, research and academic centres, governments and private sector employers are responsible for supporting female staff. It is not difficult to provide good childcare facilities with flexible working hours, day care and rooms for infants. The ongoing costs of such greatly outweigh the positive returns in so many other ways.
Families and partners are just as vital in supporting women scientists as their institutions. Ideally, men and women would share household chores equally. However, this year, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, after nurseries, kindergartens and schools were closed, women’s labor force participation dropped to 57 percent in the United States, the lowest level in three decades.
Third, public policies related to all of the above play a key role. Given the necessary requirements for maternity leave, for example, giving female scientists the right to return and taking more time to secure research funding is impactful – the latter protocol was introduced in China last year under a set of measures to support women in scientific careers and this was very welcome. Social norms and incentives that encourage men to play a greater role at home are also critical.
And educational institutions should very early on proactively seek out female students for STEM courses with special programs to encourage their interest, such as offering scholarship opportunities to girls who excel in STEM, especially those from low-income families. Public recognition is also important to stimulate and inspire young girls to join.
Now, scientific knowledge and discoveries are advancing rapidly, and we cannot hope to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—to end poverty and protect our planet—without them. To realize the goals, we need the brain power of the whole world, not just half the world, in the field of science.
So together, let’s ensure that women and girls today have the support they need to shape the discoveries that can change our world tomorrow. This is why UNDP, UN Women, UNICEF and UNESCO work to empower women and girls worldwide.
The author is the UN Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank supported by China Daily. Opinions do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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