This year, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science would be celebrated on 11 Feb 2022. Declared as a global remembrance day by the United Nations (UN) in 2015, it serves to advocate full and equal access and participation for women and girls in science.
Science and gender equality form part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, recognising women as change drivers and especially in areas such as STEM wherein they continue to be vastly under represented and excluded from participating fully.
Recognising the role of women and girls in science as an integral part of the future, the 7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science will focus on equity, diversity and inclusion and would be celebrated in many different ways across the globe. No matter how small the event, it would add to the collective voices calling for equality in science.
A definite gender gap had, throughout the years, continued to exist in all STEM disciplines across the globe despite breakthrough successes achieved by many remarkable female scientists. Women continue to be under-represented in these fields.
The UN considers gender equality a core issue for the empowerment of women and girls, believing they are able to make crucial contributions, not only to the world’s economic development, but to the scientific community as well.
In 2011, the Commission on the Status of Women adopted a report on access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology, as well as for the promotion of equal access to full employment. Two years later, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on science, technology and innovation for development. It it recognised that full and equal access to and participation in science, technology and innovation for women and girls of all ages is imperative to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.
The Status of Women Today
However, despite a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the UNESCO Science Report showed that women still account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% in computer science and informatics. It clearly indicates that to be smart the Digital Revolution needs to be fully inclusive. This Report will be published on 11 February this year to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
The percentage of women among engineering graduates is still distinctively lower than the global average for many members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In Australia, it is 23.2%, 19.7% in Canada, France (26.1%), Japan (14.0%), Switzerland (16.1%) and the USA (20.4%). These are figures for First World countries. In Africa these figures are markedly lower.
Women are still not fully benefitting from employment opportunities open to highly educated and skilled experts in fields such as artificial intelligence where only one in five professionals (22%) is a woman. This is according to a 2018 study by the World Economic Forum on the Global Gender Gap.
It is imperative that women be part of the digital economy as the impact of artificial intelligence continues to grow. The so-called glass ceiling still remains an obstacle to female careers in academia, despite some progress. Globally, women have at last achieved numerical parity (45–55%) at Bachelor and Master’s Degree levels of study and are on the cusp (44%) at PhD level according to UNESCO’s Statistics Institute.
But the gender gap starts to widen as women progress in their academic careers. Lower participation is noted from doctoral student to assistant professor to director of research or full professor and in general, female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers. Their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals and they are often passed over for promotion, receiving smaller research grants than their male colleagues and while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women.
This inequality is also encountered in peer-review processes and at scientific conferences where mostly men are invited to speak on scientific panels. This is a flagrant contravention of Article 24 of the UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers, affirming that governments should ensure that all scientific researchers enjoy equitable conditions of work, recruitment and promotion, appraisal, training and pay without discrimination.
The Request a Woman Scientist database is one response to gender discrimination in science. Part of the 500 Women Scientists organisation, it connects a multidisciplinary network of professionally vetted female scientists with anyone who needs to consult, invite and collaborate with, or identify, a female specialist.
Prestigious prizes are another way to showcase excellence and challenge negative stereotypes about women in science. One example is the L’Oréal–UNESCO For Women in Science Programme which, for the past 23 years, had been raising the profile of outstanding women researchers through the annual attribution of prizes and research fellowships with a view to changing attitudes and providing positive female role models. Three years ago, the programme was extended to include mathematics and computer science in recognition of the lack of visibility of women in fields which are at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Five new awardees will be announced on 11 February 2022.
Other awards to be shared two days earlier, on 9 February, will include the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists. For the past nine years, OWSD, a UNESCO programme and the Elsevier Foundation had been presenting annual awards to women from developing countries who had overcome considerable obstacles to achieve research excellence.
The complete UNESCO Science Report: the Race against Time for Smarter Development was released in May last year. It tracks global trends and developments in science every five years. The forthcoming edition will have a dual focus on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Note: The data on the global share of female researchers is based on information collected from 2015 to 2018 by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics from 107 countries.