February 11 of each year is International Day for Women and Girls in Science, and the theme this year is ‘IDEAS: Bringing Everyone Forward for Sustainable and Equitable Development’.
Broken-down, the theme is a call to Innovate, Demonstrate, Elevate, Advance and Sustain participation of women and girls in science.
Despite an improvement in recent years, women remain underrepresented in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), and in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
According to the 2022 WIPO World Intellectual Property Indicators Report, women inventors accounted for only 16.5% of inventors listed in international patent applications – with men accounting for the remaining 83.5%. The report further indicates that only about 33.3% of patent applications named at least one woman as inventor in 2021, while 95.9% named at least one man as inventor.
Similarly, according to a UNESCO Report, only 28% of engineering students and one-third of scientific researchers are women. Add to this is the fact that only 3% of Nobel Laureates are women, with only a handful of prizes awarded to female scientists since the Nobel Awards’ inception in 1901.
The above statistics notwithstanding, there is evidence of some encouraging and positive change happening, particularly, on the African continent. For instance, on this occasion I give examples of innovations pioneered by female scientists in Ghana to accelerate the achievement of SDGs. I also highlight a slight increase in the participation of girls in STEM courses, and of women in science leadership such as in the African Academy of Sciences and Royal Academy of Science.
In Ghana and across the continent, female scientists continue to spearhead ambitious interventions whose influence on solving societies’ problems cannot be denied. Whereas many countries embrace the innovative capacity of women and can demonstrate the significance of having more women in science, most countries are lagging behind on how to Elevate, Advance and Sustain female participation in the science field. To accelerate progress in these areas, I propose the following catalytic factors that countries can draw upon:
Build business and financial competence
Unlike their male counterparts, women in science face serious challenges and an arduous journey in accessing funds to advance their research, publish in scientific journals and eventually patenting or monetising their innovations. Besides mentoring and training opportunities, strategies for improving women’s access to business and financial literacy are necessary for building successful science-based enterprises. This means empowering female scientists with the relevant financial tools and skills that go beyond core research competencies.
Leverage networks and communities of practice
There is an urgent need to create awareness and empower current and upcoming female scientists on how they can leverage the available opportunities in the science field. By establishing or strengthening local and regional networks for women in STI/STEM, women and girls can share and benefit from their collective knowledge and experience. Building strong communities of like-minded women across generations and borders will help to inform and educate about women’s participation in STEM. The networks, whether online or physical, will enhance social connections that are crucial for the women’s personal and career advancement; and thus accelerate the representation of women in both classrooms and boardrooms.
Strengthen support ecosystems for inclusion and retention
Addressing the underrepresentation of women and girls in science requires an accelerated holistic approach (UNESCO) to attract and retain women and girls in science. This calls for multi-stakeholder partnerships between academia, government, businesses and the private sector – collaborating and working together to promote gender-equity in science policy and practice. It also calls for the participation of men as allies in supporting and uplifting their female colleagues. Equal inclusion in STEM ultimately benefits society as a whole.
The full and equal participation of women and girls in science is more necessary now than ever before. The numerous challenges facing today’s global community – from combatting climate change to improving health – requires recognition of women’s untapped talent, potential and contribution in making the world more sustainable. While much has been done, a lot more needs to be done to increase female participation in science quantitatively and qualitatively. We need to break the societal and cultural barriers hindering women from entering the science field, and seal the ‘leaky pipeline’ that prevents them from staying and succeeding in the field.
The writer is the UNDP Resident Representative in Ghana