The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, once again, the critical role of women and girls in science. Women researchers have led many crucial breakthroughs in the fight against the pandemic – from understanding the virus and controlling its spread, to developing diagnostic tests and vaccines.
At the same time, there is growing evidence that the pandemic has hit women – and women scientists – harder than men, for example as a result of the unbalanced distribution of unpaid care and domestic tasks. All too often, women take charge of home schooling, elderly care, and other work created by stay-at-home orders, at the expense of their own employment.
Gender stereotypes and gender-based inequalities continue to prevent many girls and women from taking up and remaining in careers in science across the world. UNESCO’s forthcoming Science Report shows that only 33 per cent of researchers are women, despite the fact that they represent 45 and 55 per cent of students at the Bachelor’s and Master’s levels of study respectively, and 44 per cent of those enrolled in PhD programmes.
We need to step up our efforts to close these gender gaps in science, and address the norms and stereotypes that create and preserve expectations of limited career paths for girls. The task is all the more urgent given women’s underrepresentation in areas critical to the future of work, such as renewable energy and digital fields, with only 3 per cent of female students in higher education choosing information and communication technologies.
We need science, and science needs women. This is not only about making a commitment to equal rights; it is also about making science more open, diverse and efficient.
To be truly transformative, gender equality policies and programmes need to eliminate gender stereotypes through education, change social norms, promote positive role models of women scientists and build awareness at the highest levels of decision-making. We need to ensure that women and girls are not only participating in STEM fields, but are empowered to lead and innovate, and that they are supported by workplace policies and organizational cultures that ensure their safety, consider their needs as parents, and incentivize them to advance and thrive in these careers. Recent survey findings across 17 countries underline that young women urgently want more government action, with 75 per cent of female respondents aged 18-24 expecting their government to increase funding for gender equality.
UNESCO and UN Women, together with all our partners, are committed to prioritizing gender equality in all aspects of our work: from promoting basic STEM education to acknowledging and supporting the work of female scientists around the world through initiatives such as the L’Oréal-UNESCO “For Women in Science” Programme and the Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World, and by engaging companies in the STEM sector to make bold gender equality commitments through the Women’s Empowerment Principles. UNESCO, in line with its two global priorities, Africa and gender equality, is particularly active on the African continent, accompanying girls with online mentoring programmes in Kenya, for instance, and providing school laboratories with microscience kits in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This year we are also seizing the unique opportunity offered by the Generation Equality Forum, convened by UN Women and co-chaired by France and Mexico, in partnership with civil society and youth, and its Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality, to push forward transformative actions for a gender-diverse digital evolution.
Women scientists are a source of inspiration for young girls around the world eager to enter scientific fields. Today, as we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it is our duty to pave the way for them, to build a fairer and more equal future. In the words of Jennifer Doudna, laureate of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, “I love the process of discovery.” For all girls contemplating a career in science, it should be as simple as that.