“Let’s think about the consequences of what we do each day. What do we buy? Where did it come from? How was it made? Did it harm the environment? Was it cruel to animals? Is it cheap because of child slave labour? Make ethical choices—which you can’t do if you’re living in poverty, by the way.”
These powerful words were spoken by one of the best-known researchers of our time: Jane Goodall, a scientist who has studied the behaviour of wild chimpanzees for more than 60 years. Goodall is just one of the thousands of women across the globe who have pursued a career in research. Even so, the number of female researchers is not as large as it should be—and far smaller than the number of women who would like to work in this field. In fact, only 30% of the world’s researchers are women. A study published in PLOS ONE shows that women in science are under-cited, under-promoted, under-recognised and under-paid.
Only 30% of the world’s researchers are women. A study shows that women in science are under-cited, under-promoted, under-recognised and under-paid
Women’s contributions to science are the subject of a growing number of books, talks and articles. But why do we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science? This occasion was established by the United Nations General Assembly just six years ago. Its purpose is to promote gender equality, female empowerment, and equal access and participation in science for women and girls. In other words, it is aligned with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 4 and 5 of the 2030 Agenda.
But what are the hurdles to achieving equity in access to higher education and job opportunities? From a very young age, girls are exposed to gender stereotypes in advertising and education. Consequently, girls are more likely to go into care work, while boys are encouraged to pursue scientific or technical careers.
Gender Bias at University
Once at university, women typically outnumber men. In the biomedical fields, a majority of students are women. The same cannot be said of the “pure science” fields known by the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In fact, according to a recent article, gender bias shapes what women choose to study. Women account for 55% of students in the social and biological sciences and 43% in mathematics and statistics, but they are under-represented in fields such as computer science (19%), physics (19%) and engineering (21%). Moreover, less than 5% of students in the STEM fields are women of colour.
It may be tempting to think that fewer women are interested in these fields, but nothing could be further from the truth. We have to look at this issue through a gender lens. To unpack the problem, we must adopt an intersectional perspective and try to understand the disparities affecting minority groups (women of colour, ethnic minorities, people of lower socio-economic status, LGBTIQ+ people, etc.).
Why Women Are Under-Represented
The discrimination that women may experience in “male-dominated” departments can lead to attrition and burnout, prompting some women to abandon their scientific careers —especially those who face additional oppression as members of a minority or stigmatised group. Moreover, in the STEM fields, stereotypical male characteristics (independence, competitiveness, etc.) are valued more highly than stereotypical female characteristics, leading to more men being promoted to leadership positions.
In the STEM fields, stereotypical male characteristics (independence, competitiveness, etc.) are valued more highly than stereotypical female characteristics, leading to more men being promoted to leadership positions
Another study identifies three factors that explain the under-representation of women in the STEM fields: masculine cultures that signal a lower sense of belonging to women; lack of sufficient early experience with computer science, engineering and physics; and gender gaps in self-efficacy. For a clear example of this, look no further than The Imitation Game, which tells the engaging story of Alan Turing and the creation of the first electronic computer. This film fails to mention one key detail: 100 years earlier, Ada Lovelace wrote the first algorithm, which would later help Turing lay the groundwork for modern computing.
Although women are better represented in the biomedical fields, the percentage decreases as you move up the research leadership ranks. This phenomenon—derived from the famous glass-ceiling effect—is represented by what is known as the “scissor graph”. The scientific system is based on the constant assessment of indicators: you are what you publish—or rather, the more you publish, the more you are. Everything is measured: the quantity and quality of your scientific publications, your citations, the number and value of grants you obtain, and your seniority as a researcher.
Scissor graph showing how the proportion of female scientists declines as leadership positions advance.
Source: 'She Figures 2018' report, European Commission.
Each of these evaluation processes is marred by gender disparities. A number of biases—some more conscious than others—come into play whenever women’s applications are evaluated. To make matters worse, women themselves are afflicted by “imposter syndrome”—the fear of believing that they are capable of holding positions of greater responsibility. And then there are those who decide to have children—in a society that has yet to accept that child care is both parents’ responsibility, where maternity leave was, until recently, transferable and longer for women than for men, etc. Clearly, we still have a long way to go...
The Impact of COVID-19 on Girls’ Education
The unavoidable issue of the past year—COVID-19—has also had a tremendous impact on gender inequity and schooling. How has the pandemic affected the education of women and girls? Educating girls is known to have very positive consequences, first and foremost for the girls themselves, but also in terms of improving child health, increasing labour market participation and reducing child marriages.
UNESCO estimates that 11 million girls will not return to school after the pandemic. In other words, 11 million girls have missed out on the opportunity to receive a quality education. The impact on their lives—and on their wider communities—will be felt in the medium and long term.
UNESCO estimates that 11 million girls will not return to school after the pandemic. In other words, 11 million girls have missed out on the opportunity to receive a quality education. The impact on their lives will be felt in the medium and long term
For all these reasons—and many more—we must conduct research with a gender perspective and develop a new sort of science that is critical, values-based, and transformative rather than static—a science that points out the problems of the scientific system itself as well as society at large, creating an ideal venue for open debate regarding solutions. Only through true equality can we build a better society.
“To face the immense challenges of the 21st century—from climate change to technological disorders—we need science and all the necessary energy. The world must not deprive itself of the potential, intelligence and creativity of the thousands of women who are victims of inequalities or deep-seated prejudices.
On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, UNESCO calls on the international community, the states and every individual to mobilise in order to realise equality, both in the field of science and in other fields. Humanity can only win, just like science.”
— Message from Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO
#Cuéntame11F Action (Videos)
Women in science and global health. How to move towards gender equality?