Bridging the gap for women in science and technology

Attempts to bridge the gap between women and men in science and technology fields are unlikely to be fully successful unless there are equal opportunities for women at the levels of education, career advancement and leadership positions, participants at the recent Next Einstein Forum (NEF) held in Kigali heard.

Seema Kumar, vice president of innovation, global health and policy communication at Johnson and Johnson, who was born in India and grew up when there was neither television nor telephones, said she was brought up to appreciate science and technology as an area of study. She said in the absence of women role models, she found role models in her father, husband and many bosses in the workplace.

Speaking at a special session on the challenges facing women in science and technology fields, Kumar said it was important to have male ambassadors who could ‘remove the roadblocks’ and speak on behalf of women when needed.

However, the journey was still a long one. “We have to bridge the [gender] gap because we are still a long way off, but we are building bridges which I think is a good thing,” she said.

The session on gender was a follow-up to one held at the first NEF Global Gathering in Dakar, Senegal two years ago, where a community of experts sought to define and to challenge the barriers women face in STEM fields.

Kumar said having a flexible working environment, childcare on site, mentoring, networking, champions and sponsors all contributed to increasing the representation of women in science fields. However, she said, “Until we can have equal opportunity in education, equal opportunity in career advancement, equal opportunity in leadership positions … we will never bridge the gap.”

Dr Heide Hackmann, executive director of the International Council for Science, said her career started when there were no formal policies promoting gender issues.

“[Today] there is a plethora of fantastic policies at all levels, in political fields, universities, institutions, research institutes, local and regional that are systemic and comprehensive, covering all components of gender and science and yet we all have examples of barriers we come up against – both men and women,” Hackmann said.

What is missing? she asked. “How can we transform the cultural DNA of science?”

Hackmann said intensifying existing practices was not necessarily the answer. She said there might be a need for a new understanding about how the Sustainable Development Goals framework is impacting on gender equality. She said there was an opportunity to ‘make new strategies’ and re-define the workplace cultures, given the entry of artificial intelligence and the digital revolution sweeping the world.

“We need to make new strategies. My strategy is, pick your patch and make your difference. Mine is global science; that’s where I need to make a difference,” she said.

She proposed the establishment of an international science body, with Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the helm, to collect knowledge and identify good practices and global champions, in order to approach the United Nations to request a UN decade for ‘Women in Science’. The last UN Decade for Women was from 1976-1985.

Professor Tolu Oni, Next Einstein fellow and co-chair of Global Young Academy, said there was a significant gap between perception and reality. What was perceived to be happening in STEM must actually match the reality of what is happening on the ground, she said.

“We have a long way to go to achieve gender equity in STEM, but we have come a long way,” she said. According to Oni, teachers were important in the science ecosystem as schools represent the first exposure of children to science.

The way science was taught to young school children could ignite an interest in science that might help to address the gap in future.

Teachers are also a bridge between science and society and they should be properly trained to avoid gender bias continuing to be perpetuated in classes, she said.

Arguing in favour of effective monitoring, she said: “Data matters, we need to try to understand what we are trying to change, and we need to evaluate if we are actually changing.”

Dr Eugene Matimura, Rwandan minister of education, said his country or any other in Africa could not develop into a knowledge-based economy without the skills needed to drive such growth. This would mean addressing barriers for both boys and girls in education.

He said strategies in Rwanda had been put in place to push for equal representation of girls and boys in science, including support for teacher training programmes that mentor girls. He said these investments were set to bear fruit in Rwanda.