For Women Physicists, ‘Only One Thing Worse than Coming Home from Lab to Sink Full of Dirty Dishes Is Not Going to the Lab at All’, Says Deputy Secretary-General

31 May 2011

For Women Physicists, ‘Only One Thing Worse than Coming Home from Lab to Sink Full of Dirty Dishes Is Not Going to the Lab at All’, Says Deputy Secretary-General

31 May 2011
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

For Women Physicists, ‘Only One Thing Worse than Coming Home from Lab to Sink Full


of Dirty Dishes Is Not Going to the Lab at All’, Says Deputy Secretary-General


Following are Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro’s remarks to the International Women Leaders’ Conference: “Women, Science and Technology”, in Haifa, Israel, on 29 May:

It is a great pleasure to be here.  I thank MASHAV, the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for organizing this important event.

All of you in this room have experienced the difficulties of navigating male-dominated environments; of having to prove yourself over and over again; of facing excruciating choices between your work and your personal life.  Yet you have surmounted those obstacles.  You are leaders in your respective professions and arenas.  You are proof that the world can change for the better — that efforts to ensure equality between women and men can produce real progress.  All of this makes you powerful examples for others.

I have had a small taste of what that means.  I am a lawyer — a profession that not many women in my country entered when I was in law school.  Much later, when I became the United Republic of Tanzania’s Foreign Minister, I was part of an even smaller sorority: the handful of women who represented their countries abroad.  It is still only a handful, I regret to say.

So I am accustomed to being looked at, in a very modest way, as someone who has broken a barrier or two in her time — even though, in truth, I have simply followed my heart and pursued the things interested me — all while trying to be a wife and mother, too.

But I know that you here in this room are true pioneers.  The field that has brought us together today — science and technology — is one where role models are especially important.  Women continue to be underrepresented in the sciences.  More and more women are studying and working in the field.  Yet, for many, mathematics and science continue to be associated with men.  This belief can be unconscious, and may prevail even in people who support gender equality in science and technology.

Such stereotypes have a very real impact: they can lower girls’ performance and interest in science and technology, and they can hinder women’s recruitment and career progression in these disciplines.  Gender stereotypes play a role in steering women and men into segregated academic and career paths, which in turn has important consequences for women’s economic opportunities and income.

Occupational segregation, in addition to being a fundamental injustice, is also bad economics.  As the world economy is increasingly knowledge-driven, the future prosperity and well-being of all countries depend greatly on having an educated workforce able to use existing technologies and to develop new applications.   Women represent an important pool of talent; forgoing their contributions means giving up on innovation itself.  Our challenge is the same as it is in so many other realms where women face disadvantages and discrimination: to ensure that women contribute fully to science, technology and innovation.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women — the main global policymaking body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and the empowerment of women — addressed this very issue.  The Commission adopted a far-reaching policy document identifying key steps to be carried out by all stakeholders, including Governments, the United Nations system, non-governmental organizations, academia, scientific research and funding institutions, professional associations, the private sector and the media.

At the very top of the list is empowering girls through education.  That means improving access to schools and training centres.  There has been important progress on this front, spurred in part by the global mobilization behind the Millennium Development Goals, the world’s blueprint for ending extreme poverty.  But more is needed.  We must also increase the quality of education by investing in the professional development of teachers.

Tackling gender stereotypes is another imperative.  These remain pernicious and pervasive — in education, in the workplace, in society at large.  We need to make science and technology an attractive sector for women.  Revising educational materials and sensitizing teachers can help.  So can exposing girls and boys to role models in non-traditional fields, such as female engineers.

A third focus is women’s recruitment, retention and career progression.  Women can feel very isolated working in male-dominated sectors; this is not just a matter of day-to-day collegiality in the office, but rather one that can affect a woman’s overall prospects and sense of self.  We must develop clear criteria for the recruitment and career progression of women in science and technology.  We must also address the difficulties they face in reconciling work and family life.  As the renowned Chinese-American physicist, Chien Shiung Wu, once said: “There is only one thing worse than coming home from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes, and that is not going to the lab at all!”

Let us also remember the women who are not scientists or engineers, yet who still rely on the field.  Too little attention has been given to the obstacles that women entrepreneurs face in gaining access to science and technology, and in developing innovation.  Rural and indigenous women are another often overlooked group whose formidable local knowledge and innovation are insufficiently taken into account — or even exploited.

I have so far focused on the centrality of education and employment.  The content of science and technology is just as important.  Science is frequently seen as objective.  But research is carried out by scientists and engineers who, as human beings, are not immune from making subjective judgements or having certain blind spots.  As a result, science and technology may not always take into account the different needs and interests of women and men.

Biomedical research is a case in point.  Despite well-recognized differences between female and male physiology, preclinical experiments still tend to be conducted mostly on male animals.   Moreover, the majority of participants in early stage clinical trials tend to be men.  These practices potentially skew results, with serious implications for women’s health.  The message is clear: research and development needs to pay greater attention to gender issues.  In Kenya, the developers of the energy-efficient Upesi cook stove sought the views of women in the design and testing of prototypes, an approach in marked contrast to that of earlier, unsuccessful stove development projects.  The result?  More knowledge and a better product. 

I have set out a fairly long “wish list” of actions that “should” be taken by a number of different stakeholders.  But it is only by working together and combining our strengths that we will translate global agreements into tangible, meaningful results.  Women have a long and proud history in the sciences — insights and innovation, Nobel-prize-winning discoveries.  We know that women are among the keys to unlocking progress on the Millennium Development Goals.  That is why we are focusing unprecedented attention on women’s and children’s health, including through a new and innovative global strategy.

We know that women are denied their rightful spot in peace processes, and so we are working to increase their participation in peacekeeping, peacemaking and mediation efforts.  We know that women are still underrepresented in parliament and at the highest levels of business and industry, and so we have issued a set of principles offering guidance on how to empower women in the workplace and marketplace — our slogan: “Equality means business”.  And we know that women and girls continue to endure unacceptable discrimination and violence, which is why we have launched a campaign on this issue, appointed a Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict and are working to end impunity and change the mindsets that make this violence so persistent.

We at the United Nations will count on each and every one of you, through your networks and spheres of influence, to help overcome inequality and discrimination — and enable women to realize their full potential and contribute to our shared quest for common progress in the sciences and beyond.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.