Madame scientistWe need to increase the participation of women and girls in science and technology
In this rapidly changing and growing world, new opportunities for growth and development are increasing everyday, but so are new challenges to peace and security. On the one hand, we enjoy the benefits of technological advancements in communication, travel and innovation. On the other hand, we are observing growing threats of climate change, global health epidemics, irregular migration, extreme poverty and increased inequality. We are seeing an increasing need to find solutions for sustainable and inclusive growth and mitigate these threats with the maximum use of innovation in the fields of science and technology. And for that, we need to increase women’s participation in the field of science and technology.
Widening gender gap
Women and girls, who make up half of the world’s population, are significantly under-represented both as users and leaders in the area of science, technology and innovation. The job market is changing rapidly, and a new wave of innovation is expected to transform lives in areas such as robotics, transport, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and genomics. Jobs on demand will be of a different nature in the near future. The future workforce will need to develop and align their skills to correspond to these job market needs.
Women are concentrated in specific occupations in science and technology. In higher education globally, women are under-represented in computing, engineering and physics, with levels below 30 percent in most countries. Consequently, less than one-third of the jobs in the tech sector are currently held by women. Engineering roles comprise only about half of those jobs. As women work their way up the career ladder, this gender gap widens.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders in 2015 is founded on the principle of leaving no one behind, including women and girls. Therefore, closing the gender digital divide is one of the most important things we have to do to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
In March 2011, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women adopted a report on access and participation of women and girls in education, training and science and technology, and for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work. In December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on science, technology and innovation for development, in which it recognised that full and equal access to and participation in science, technology and innovation for women and girls of all ages is imperative for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. In December 2015, the General Assembly adopted a resolution to establish an annual international day to recognise the critical role women and girls play in the science and technology communities. So, February 11 has been celebrated as International Day of Women and Girls in Science since 2016.
Albert Einstein said, “It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.” In Nepal, a number of factors such as deep-rooted socio-cultural norms, patriarchal society, religion, socio-economic status of the family, early and forced marriage and preference for sons contribute to gender disparities in the family and society as well as educational institutions. We can see that enrolment rates for girls are higher in ‘community’ state schools while the enrolment for boys is higher in private schools. Gender disparity in education can be seen especially in rural areas and among the disadvantaged. In many areas, access to higher education for young women remains a challenge in itself.
While the number of female students in medicine is higher, it is much lower in engineering and technology related fields. At the school level, there are a limited number of female teachers in mathematics and science subjects, which limits the number of role models for female students studying these subjects. Related to the wider issue of negative stereotype threat, the gender dimension of student interest and attitudes towards mathematics and science may not only affect learning achievement in these subjects but also choices for further study and careers.
How to get there? Gender-responsive action by the government through education and labour market policies, enforcement of gender-related laws and specific initiatives for advocacy and raising awareness are needed to attract women and girls to science and technology. There should be gender-responsive career counselling, scholarship and mentoring opportunities. Stimulating, encouraging and supporting fair and equal opportunities for girls and boys to perform in science related subjects at school will lead to more girls and women studying science and technology in higher education. Psychosocial influences can significantly impact female participation in science related fields. Girls need to develop an attitude to be self-motivated and learn independently. This also depends a lot on improving the attitude of students and parents to be more familiar with fields related to science.
The involvement of women and girls in science is a necessity. Meaningful progress must start with the rights and dignity of women by nurturing their inspiration and innovation. They are regarded as an important factor of growth and development both in the developed and developing countries. All actors should emphasise working together to ensure that women and girls in science are perceived with dignity and recognised for their abilities.
Mainali is First Secretary, Permanent Mission of Nepal to the United Nations, New York