This is what I heard when my mother sought “permission” from the family elders to admit me to an engineering school in the early 1990s. Not just in the family – rather I was the first girl in my province who dared to study an engineering degree.
It wasn’t the first time I faced resistance. My mother received daily reality checks about her five daughters daring to pursue careers in STEM.
Girls in developing countries around the world continue to be discouraged from participating in science.
For example, women typically receive smaller research grants than their male counterparts, and although they represent more than a third of all researchers, only 12% of members of the National Academies of Science are women.
The low representation of women in key decision-making roles often speaks to the biases that our organizations and systems reflect. The numbers drop further for cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, where only one in five professionals (22%) is a woman.
This lack of representation shows our lack of will and ability to find solutions to gender inequality. Women in science is not only a matter of justice, but also a matter of productivity and economics. According to the UN Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report, the exclusion of women from the digital world has cut $1 trillion from the gross domestic product of low- and middle-income countries over the past decade – a loss that will rise to $1.5 trillion by 2025 without action. .
Such exclusion has been shown not only to hinder scientific progress, hindering the work of perhaps dozens of Marie Curies and Rosalind Franklins, but it can also harm people. A lack of research into women’s physiology has put them at a dangerous disadvantage when it comes to health care, as highlighted at the recent World Economic Forum.
“It is essential that the women of tomorrow are seen as key stakeholders in scientific progress”
Encouraging women into STEM is a cross-cutting theme within the British Council’s global work to support girls and women interested in STEM. It is important that the women of tomorrow see themselves as key stakeholders in scientific progress and act as empowered members to contribute to it. The issue is less about gender equality and more about fair share, or even fair market share.
Some of the work done is of sufficient value to be as high as the islands of perfection. EDGE is one of the successful examples in South Asia. English and Digital for Girls’ Education aims to improve the life prospects and build English, ICT and social skills of adolescent girls aged 14-19 in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
Another initiative, one in English, raises awareness of why women are underrepresented in science and encourages teachers and students to demystify stereotypes and myths. Now in its third year, the British Council Women in STEM scholarship program creates opportunities for women and girls who want to pursue science but cannot due to a lack of financial support.
The program works in partnership with 19 UK universities to benefit women from the Americas, South Asia, East Asia, the Western Balkans, Central Asia, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and Turkey.
The gap is wide and needs to be bridged. The theme for Women’s Day 2023 recognizes this gap. The above examples have the potential to become benchmarks for others to follow. These examples may appear as isolated case studies, but they represent an opportunity, a possibility for replication and extension. If nothing else, they will become pointers for future interventions to bridge the gap.
Equality cannot be achieved in isolation; requires affirmative action on many levels. Letting women into STEM fields is one important step and giving them a meaningful space for others. Participation (recruitment) is the first step, but the presence of women in STEM alone is not the whole solution.
The next step is to make a conscious effort to make their participation meaningful and create an enabling environment (retention) so that they can demonstrate their best abilities. Taking it further, the development and implementation of policies, procedures and environments for their career progression, academic development and visibility (empowerment) is a desirable level where women’s talent and potential can reach their best.
Science is not binary; Let’s recruit, retain and nurture women in science.
About the author: Nishat Riaz is Head of HE Systems and Internationalization at the British Council. Nishat is based in Pakistan.