Lack of gender equality in science is holding back solutions

Springer Nature Group
By: Sima Bahous, Tue Mar 8 2022
Sima Bahous

Author: Sima Bahous

Executive Director, UN Women

This guest blog from UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous marks International Women’s Day and Nature’s virtual conference ‘Breaking Barriers for Gender Equity Through Research’ which is taking place 9 and 10 March. The event will highlight the role of research towards achieving gender equality, and create new opportunities for networking and mentoring.

As the world faces a growing climate crisis, we need to bring all our best resources to bear on finding responses that mitigate impact and help us to change direction.  Around the world, women and girls are leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a more sustainable future for us all. But this, and the scientific field as a whole, remains a deeply unequal field of work and study.  Still, only one in three scientists (33%) is a woman, according to the UNESCO Science Report 2021. This glaring disparity is not just a handicap to our immediate climate response, it is a problem for the long-term development of societies as a whole, holding back critical advances across multiple aspects of employment, innovation and the green economy.

At the core of this imbalance are factors such as social norms, harassment and gender bias in education and the workplace that make it difficult to attract and retain women in science careers. For example, a UN Women regional 2021 study shows that despite the relatively high number of STEM graduates, women are less likely than men to consider a technical career.

In academia, women remain underrepresented among senior scientists, with studies showing they are awarded less research grant funding than men and stand less chance of being promoted. Women are also less present in company leadership and technical roles in private sector STEM industries. We are seeing a lack of equal opportunity in the workplace driving women out of the research profession, while women who create tech-based start-ups have a harder time than men accessing vital venture capital.

These are significant gaps in leadership and in resources – especially in light of the growing demand for skilled labour to fuel the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Women account for just 22% of professionals in artificial intelligence, and 28% of engineering graduates, despite there being a labour shortage in these fields and a recognized need to address the persistent gender bias in many algorithms, which tend to replicate the inherent biases of their creators.

Closing gender gaps and creating more opportunities for women in STEM education and skills development is critical to ensure women’s perspectives and diversity are reflected in innovation. It could also contribute to reducing the gender wage gap and help boost employment. According to the European Institute of Gender Equality, reducing the gender gap in STEM would lead to a rise in EU employment by 850,000 people by 2050.

Last year, the Generation Equality Forum launched the Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality. Its aim is to double the proportion of women working in technology and innovation by 2026 and ensure that women and girls participate fully in finding solutions to the large, complex and interdisciplinary problems we face.

We are already seeing how working together across sectors and generations is galvanising momentum towards solutions. These entail actions that both public and private sector partners can put in place: eliminating gender stereotypes in education; putting in place policies to attract and support women scientists in the workforce; and implementing quotas to ensure a greater proportion of research grants are awarded to women-led teams or teams that include women. The transition to a regenerative economy will create many new jobs around the world, including for women in STEM industries. Research shows that there will need to be strong leadership and investment to improve their access to education in technical and STEM subjects and careers at all levels of the education system, from primary to tertiary, including vocational education and training.

There is much that can and must be done, if we are to respond in time to the climate crisis, to build more inclusive science and technology ecosystems, without limiting biases and discrimination, and to realise women’s and girls’ full professional potential.

Sima Bahous

Author: Sima Bahous

Executive Director, UN Women

Ms. Sima Sami Bahous became UN Women’s third Executive Director on 30 September 2021. A champion for women and girls, gender equality, and youth empowerment, as well as a keen advocate for quality education, poverty alleviation, and inclusive governance, Ms. Bahous brings to the position more than 35 years of leadership experience at the grassroots, national, regional, and international levels, coupled with expertise in advancing women’s empowerment and rights, addressing discrimination and violence, and promoting sustainable socio-economic development towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ms. Bahous most recently served as Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations in New York.  Prior to that position, she served as Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), from 2012 to 2016, and Assistant Secretary‑General and Head of the Social Development Sector at the League of Arab States, from 2008 to 2012.

She has also served in two ministerial posts in Jordan as President of the Higher Media Council, from 2005 to 2008, and as Adviser to King Abdullah II from 2003 to 2005.  She was Media Adviser and Director of Communication for the Royal Hashemite Court from 2001 to 2003, Acting Executive Director for the King Hussein Foundation from 2000 to 2001 and Executive Director of the Noor al Hussein Foundation from 1998 to 2001.  She also worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and with a number of United Nations and civil society organizations, and taught development and communication studies at various universities in Jordan.

Ms. Bahous holds a doctorate degree in mass communication and development from Indiana University, in the United States; a master’s degree in literature and drama from Essex University, in the United Kingdom; and a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Jordan University.  She is fluent in Arabic and English, and proficient in French.

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