Panellists in Women’s Commission Encourage Young Girls to Study Science, Technology, Change Perception of Pursuit as ‘Masculine’

18 March 2014
Fifty-eighth Session, 12th & 13th Meetings (AM & PM)

Panellists in Women’s Commission Encourage Young Girls to Study Science, Technology, Change Perception of Pursuit as ‘Masculine’

UN-Women Urges Exploration of Ways to Align Desire for ‘Work-Life Balance’ with Rigours of Science Careers

The importance of inspiring young girls to not only study, but to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics was the focus of two panel discussions in today’s meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women.

Joining panellists was the Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN-Women, Lakshmi Puri, who pointed out that women seeking work-life balance were often discouraged from entering science fields because those were very rigorous and competitive.  It was imperative, she said, to change that structure in a way that made those pursuits more accessible for women.  Scholarships and incentives, for example, could be provided for them.

More attention must also be given to the recruitment, promotion and retention of women in science fields, she said.  Vision and leadership were needed to support women in non-traditional professions, as were the creation of women’s engineering colleges, and science and technology institutions.  UN-Women had launched a number of country-specific initiatives in recent years aimed specifically at bringing together women and information technologies.

The first panel focused on efforts to inspire girls to study fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, noting that girls were often left out of such educational activities because they were deemed “masculine” pursuits.  The lack of professional female role models made it all the more difficult to inspire young girls to pursue such career paths, they said.

Picking up that thread, Commission Vice-Chair Carlos Enrique García González (El Salvador) said that further prevented their full participation in employment and decent work and hindered their equal access to high-skilled careers, with “disproportionate impact on their economic empowerment and long-term economic security”.

In a keynote address, Gloria Bonder, Regional Chair for Women, Science and Technology in Latin America for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said women had made historical contributions to that field and continued to have an impact.  To counter persistent challenges, she advocated a more ambitious approach and structural change, but said that was not just about counting how many women had access to science and technology, but about identifying ways to integrate them into transformed learning environments. 

During the discussion, delegates shared their experiences with successful policies and programmes aimed at motivating girls and women to pursue educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, while others noted challenges they faced in shifting existing gender norms in these areas. 

In the afternoon panel, the Commission focused on how to support women in the transition from the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to full employment and decent work.  One panellist detailed her country’s success in placing female students in internships in high-tech companies to give students real-world experience and introduce them to prospective employers.  Career guidance, interview and resume-writing workshops also helped girls and women transition from students to professionals.

For their part, delegates discussed the positive effects of such efforts as funding research organizations, creating programmes for technology transfer for women in the workplace, and spearheading initiatives to train women in information technology to enhance their employability.

The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 March, to continue its work.

Panel I

In the morning, the Commission held a panel discussion on “Access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work”.  Moderated by Carlos Enrique García González (El Salvador), it featured a keynote address from Gloria Bonder, Coordinator, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Regional Chair for Women, Science and Technology in Latin America.  Panellists included Njideka Harry, President and CEO, Youth for Technology Foundation; Leigh Ann DeLyser, computer science education consultant, New York City Department of Education; and Luna Ruiz, student, Academy for Software Engineering.

Opening the session, Mr. García González stressed that gender equalities were pervasive worldwide, which reflected power imbalances between women and men and had wide-ranging negative effects on individuals and societies.  One critical area was enabling equal access to science and technology employment.  Women and girls were underrepresented in that sphere and lacked positive role models.  “This further prevents their full participation in employment and decent work and hinders their equal access to high-skilled careers, with disproportionate impact on their economic empowerment and long-term economic security,” he said.

In her keynote address, Ms. Bonder focused on gender perspectives in science and technology education and said that women had made historical contributions to that field and continued to have an impact.  Much progress had been made, she reported, but great challenges still remained.  The world needed a more ambitious approach and a structural change.  It was not just about counting how many women had access to science and technology, but about the international community going beyond simply promoting the participation of more women and identifying ways to integrate them into transformed learning environments.  There must be renewed criteria to determine how to influence gender and education policies, while fruitful, open discussions were needed among all sectors. 

To define the future of education from a gender perspective, societies must define what they wanted, she said, adding that without a shared vision, it was impossible to craft such reforms.  Recent studies were very important to enabling strategic decision-making on future priorities.  Science, technology and ethics should be more carefully researched, particularly as they related to ideas such as sustainable development and gender equality.  Education was moving towards a new “learning ecology”, meaning that young people today were gathering information from a range of sources, including from tablets, mobile devices and their peers in collaborative learning environments.

Ms. Harry focused on a science and technology programme established in Nigeria, aimed specifically at opening doors for young girls.  The future depended on the ability to educate today’s students in those fields, as well as in engineering and mathematics.  As children moved towards scientific thinking and behaviour, women must be involved, given their critical role in raising their children.  Nigeria’s Youth for Technology Foundation programme focused on the growth of women and girls in science and technology.  In many African societies, women were often left out of those educational activities, as they were perceived as primarily “masculine” areas of study.  Often women and girls were the first ones to drop out of school because they were expected to care for sick parents or siblings.  Girls predominantly took up non-science courses in school, while suffering from a lack of female role models in science and technology. 

The school environment had a profound influence, as girls were actively discouraged from participating in science activities, which negatively impacted their self-confidence in those disciplines.  School curriculums often failed to link science and technology to ways in which young girls could achieve their long-term goals of having a positive impact on their community and supporting others.  Empowering women and girls was a breakthrough strategy for inclusive sustainable development.  Men also had a role to play and should work to encourage the private sector to incorporate gender equality into strategic hiring policies.  

Ms. DeLyser focused on why young women needed additional support to achieve equality in education.  More than 80 per cent of people who purchased technology were women, making them the largest consumers of technological products.  Technology jobs were the fastest growing sector around the world and represented tremendous socioeconomic mobility for students who wanted to get into secure, high-paying jobs.  Countries should inspire, engage and implement programmes to turn the next generation of women into creators, builders and problem-solvers, all of which fuelled economic development.  Educators must introduce and implement programmes that provided students with access to formal, rigorous training, and provide a pathway to further education.  Defeating stereotypes was an important part of successfully integrating girls into science and technology education.

Ms. Ruiz shared her educational experiences, including the ways in which teachers had a positive impact on her interest in science and technology, particularly her keen interest in new technologies available in schools.  Although her school was predominantly male, she enjoyed the way the teachers made the courses fun and interactive.  Often when one thought about leaders in technology they thought only about men like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs; however, there were many examples of female role models for young girls like herself to look up to.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, delegates shared accomplishments from their national programmes and policies, while highlighting challenges faced in promoting women’s empowerment and gender equality.  Speakers discussed successes with online educational platforms targeting women and the importance of grassroots efforts, among other initiatives.

The representative of the European Union delegation asked panellists for examples of best practices of engaging girls and women in science and technology education.  Ms. Bonder responded that studies were being carried out to identify best practices for engagement.  In the past, there had been broad, general studies conducted.  However, Governments were now challenged to conduct studies and identify applicable indicators so that data could be gathered and compared.

The representative of Finland said that there was not only a digital divide between developed and developing countries, but also between men and women.  She asked what Governments and policymakers could do to encourage greater participation of girls and women in science and technology.  Ms. Bonder responded that most of her studies had focused on the private sector.  However, important efforts were under way to link the education public sector with the private sector through campaigns and initiatives. 

Responding to a question from the representative of Switzerland on the role of gender studies, Ms. Bonder said that those had explored stereotypes and explained factors that contributed to the development and persistence of stereotypes.  Such studies had been ongoing for three decades and focused not just on increasing the number of women in science and technology, but also pointed the way to look at the issue more broadly.

Responding to a comment from the delegate of Pakistan on the importance of engaging not only students but also young teachers, Ms. Bonder said that training professors and teachers was crucial, as it would be the cornerstone of potential future transformations.  Ms. Harry agreed, saying that it all boiled down to the teachers and their personal journeys and motivations.

Saniye GÜLSER CORAT, Director, Division for Gender Equality in the Office of the Director-General, UNESCO, in concluding remarks, said a more inclusive world was not just the “right thing to do”, it was an imperative.  She agreed that there were too few female role models in technology and that, unfortunately, women were not nurtured in that regard in the same way as their male counterparts.  If progress was to be made, gender equality and education needed to be recognized as a two-way street, as success in one would help promote success in the other.

Also participating in the discussion were representatives of Italy, Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Uganda, Gambia, Kuwait, Panama, Ecuador, Iran, United Arab Emirates, El Salvador, Tajikistan, United Republic of Tanzania and Belarus.

From civil society, a representative of Education International also spoke.

Panel II

In the afternoon, the Commission held a panel discussion entitled “The transition of women from education to full employment and decent work, with a particular focus on employment in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics”.  Moderated by Neli Shiolashvili (Georgia), Vice-Chair of the Commission, it featured presentations by Hind Abdulaziz Alowais, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of the United Arab Emirates to the United Nations, speaking on behalf of Lamya Fawwaz, the Executive Director of Public Affairs at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology; Londa Schiebinger, John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science, Stanford University; and Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director, UN-Women.

Ms. ALOWAIS focused her presentation on “Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics:  The UAE Experience”.  She said that in her country, preparing women for careers in those fields began at an early age; classes in mathematics and science were integrated into primary school curriculums, and continued through high school and beyond.  The Government supported women’s pursuit of technical studies, providing scholarships and other forms of aid for engineering and science programmes, and grooming the women to play a significant role in expanding the nation’s technical capacity, which was crucial for the country’s transition to a knowledge-based economy. 

Most of the country’s women, she went on, already understood the value of a technical education.  A recent study by the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi found that more than 80 per cent of the country’s female students strongly believed that women were just as capable as men in science, technology and engineering.  The study also showed that improving women’s rights in such fields and providing them with career counselling and job placement would help improve the nation’s overall capacity.

To facilitate that process, the Masdar Institute had reached out to the parents of prospective female students to reassure them their daughters would be in safe classroom settings, their education would be valued and they would be put on a beneficial path, she said.  That outreach had led to a positive attitudinal shift about women’s role and had improved female students’ enrolment in technical fields, including through master’s and doctorate programmes.  The Institute also had arranged internships in attractive high-tech companies to give students real-world experience and introduce them to prospective employers.  It maintained a database of employers and offered students career guidance, job interview workshops and help with resume writing.  Such efforts had led graduates to plum jobs at Microsoft, PricewaterhouseCoopers, General Electric, Siemens and the International Renewable Energy Agency, among other notable firms and organizations.

Ms. SCHIEBINGER discussed “Gendered Innovations:  Making Science and Technology Responsive to Women’s Needs”, saying that gender bias in science and technology was costly, both economically and in terms of lives lost.  For example, the lack of menstrual hygiene products in rural India could lead girls to drop out of secondary school.  Failure to use female cells, tissues and animals in biomedical research could lead to great health risks for women.  In 2011, a global team of scientists, engineers and gender experts developed methods of gender-based analysis for science and technology, which took into account the biological and social needs of both sexes.  The methods focused on such things as developing public transportation to serve all users’ needs, particularly the travel patterns of female care workers; tapping into women’s knowledge of water wells to reduce the time women and girls spent fetching water; improving maternal health care; providing girls in rural villages with affordable sanitary pads to keep them from dropping out of school; and developing male contraceptives to ensure that men shared the burden of birth control.

Noting that the Commission’s resolutions in 2011 called for strengthening national legislation, policies and programmes for women and girls in science and technology, she said grant-making agencies could do their part by requiring applicants to explain how gender analysis was relevant to their proposed research.  In that regard, the European Commission had incorporated into its 2014-2020 funding framework gender-based analysis in some 50 fields, such as computer hardware, ecology, biophysics, chemistry and nanotechnology.  Since 2010, all 13 Canadian Institutes of Health Research required applicants to consider gender in their research.  She suggested that editorial boards of peer-reviewed journals could require sophisticated gender-based analysis when selecting papers for publication.  She also recommended that educational institutions integrate the results of gendered innovations into their curricula.

Ms. PURI stressed the importance of effecting a mindset change and making science and technology serve women’s empowerment.  It was necessary to transform laws, constitutions and institutions.  A vision and leadership also were needed to support women in non-traditional professions, as were creation of related educational institutions for women.  Science and engineering education and careers were very rigorous and competitive, and women seeking work-life balance were often discouraged from entering them.  That structure must be changed to facilitate women’s access to such fields, and scholarships and incentives should be provided.

She stressed that recruitment, promotion and retention of women in science fields must be given more attention, as should information and communications technology, which was a major beneficiary and enabler of women’s advancement in such fields.  With the support of the Canadian Government, UN-Women last year had launched a knowledge gateway, which brought together best practices worldwide in science and technology.  In Kenya, UN-Women supported a new system to provide new female farmers with up-to-date information on agricultural prices.  In Brazil, it had launched an app for “safe cities” that connected victims of violence with social and legal services.  In Jordan, UN-Women was collaborating with Cisco Systems to support information and communications technology for women.  

During the ensuing discussion, delegates shed light on their respective national strategies and programmes, drawing attention to efforts to fund research organizations that were conducting gender analysis.  Support was also being given, they said, to technology transfer for women in the workplace, training in information technology to enhance women’s employability, science fairs at schools, and World Bank-funded projects for women in science education and research.  There was broad agreement that women overall remained a minority in scientific research.

To the European Union representative’s question asked about good practices and strategies to address institutional barriers to gender discrimination in research, Ms. Alowais stressed the importance of legal frameworks and constitutional laws to erase such barriers.  She pointed to the United Arab Emirates Government’s decision to require research institutions and companies to have women sit on their boards of directors.

Regarding the Swiss representative’s question about specific incentives for elderly women, Ms. Schiebinger said it was important to seek their input about their technological needs before developing products geared towards them. 

The Philippine’s representative asked about incentives created by employers, while the representative of Finland asked if a forum might highlight the need to expand the knowledge base in science and engineering.  

Ms. Schiebinger said the problem was the gender gap in knowledge in science and engineering.  Technical education curriculums were too narrowly defined and should be reframed.  Current educational programmes did not take into consideration what women valued and enjoyed doing.  While women were increasingly involved in civil engineering, few were active, for example, in mechanical engineering.  The focus should be on supporting more initiatives in specific technical areas that women found interesting, rather than requiring them to conform to what was available.

Also participating in the discussion were representatives of Senegal, Pakistan, Italy, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Nigeria, Syria, Republic of Korea and Uganda.

A statement was also made by a civil society representative of Mujer para la Mujer, A.C.

For information media. Not an official record.