Curiosity and innovation have no gender, and neither should science

Published 08/03/2023

“Girls are made for softer subjects and jobs, science is masculine, science-related jobs are masculine, and our daughters are fragile, soft and tender.”

This is what I heard when my mother was seeking ‘permission’ from family elders for my admission into an engineering school in the early 1990s. Not just in the family – rather I was the first girl in my province to dare to pursue an engineering degree.

This was not the first time I faced resistance. My mother used to get daily reality checks about her five daughters who had dared to pursue careers in STEM.

Girls in developing countries around the world continue to be discouraged from participating in science.

For example, women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent over a third of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women.

Low representation of women in key decision roles often speak of the biases that our organisations and systems reflect. Figures drop further when it comes to cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, where only one in five professionals (22%) is a woman.

These under-representations demonstrate our lack of will and ability to find solutions to gender inequality. Women in science is not only a matter of fairness but also a matter of productivity and economics too. As per the UN Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report, women’s exclusion from the digital world has shaved $1 trillion from the gross domestic product of low- and middle-income countries in the last decade – a loss that will grow to $1.5 trillion by 2025 without action.

Such exclusion has proven to not only hamper scientific progress, preventing the work of possibly dozens of Marie Curies and Rosalind Franklins, but it can also harm people. A lack of research into women’s physiology has resulted in them having a dangerous disadvantage when it comes to healthcare, as highlighted at the recent World Economic Forum.

“It is critical that the women of tomorrow see themselves as key stakeholders in scientific progress”

Encouraging women into STEM is a cross-cutting theme throughout the British Council’s global work, which aims to provide support for girls and women who are interested in STEM. It is critical that the women of tomorrow see themselves as key stakeholders in scientific progress and act as empowered members to contribute towards it. The issue is less about gender equality and more about fair share, or even fair market share.

Some of the work done has enough value to stand as tall as islands of excellence. EDGE is one successful example across South Asia. English and Digital for Girls’ Education focuses on improving life prospects and building English, ICT and social skills among adolescent girls between 14-19 years old in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.

Another initiative, one in English, raises awareness about why women are poorly represented in science and encourages teachers and learners to demystify stereotypes and myths. Now in its third year, the British Council Women in STEM Scholarships program creates opportunities for women and girls who want to pursue science yet cannot due to lack of financial support.

The program is working in partnership with 19 UK universities with the aim of benefiting women from the Americas, South Asia, East Asia, Western Balkans, Central Asia, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, and Turkey.

The gap is wide and needs bridging. The theme for Women’s Day 2023 acknowledges this gap. The examples above have the potential to become reference points for others to follow. These examples may appear to be isolated case studies however these present an opportunity, a possibility for replication and scaling up. If nothing more, then becoming signposts for future interventions in bridging the gap.

Equality cannot be achieved in isolation; it requires affirmative action on many levels. Letting women into STEM fields is one important step and giving them meaningful space is another. Participation (recruitment) is the first step, however, the mere presence of women in STEM is not the complete solution.

Conscious efforts to make their participation meaningful and creating an enabling environment (retention) for them to be able to prove their best abilities is the next step. Taking it even further, developing and implementing policies, practices and environments for their advancement in careers, academia and visibility (raising) is the desired level where female talent and potential can rise to their best.

Science is not binary; Let us Recruit, Retain and Raise women in science.

About the author: Nishat Riaz is Head of HE Systems and Internationalisation at British Council. Nishat is based in Pakistan.

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