Scientific progress and women’s empowerment – two imperatives in the era of COVID-19

07/10/2020

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On the occasion of the International Day of the Girl 2020 (October 11), ITU, UNESCO and WIPO, in collaboration with the Permanent Mission of Bulgaria, co-hosted a virtual event “Gender Equality in Science, Technology and Innovation: Driving Sustainable Future during COVID-19 and beyond” in an effort to galvanize awareness and leverage action to empower girls through enhanced access to science, technology and innovation (STI). Panelists from government, the private sector, civil society, the academia, young people and international organizations, looked back on the progress achieved in empowering girls and women through STI and reflected on the barriers that hold women from equally participating in STI.

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As the international community observes the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, global challenges like the current COVID-19 pandemic have underlined the critical role that science and women’s empowerment play for driving progress forward across the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Against this background, the meeting underscored the need to better leverage the skills of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) so that more specialists will not only eventually control COVID-19, but also understand the impact of other global crises on the growing incidences of slow onset events.

Moderating the session, Mrs Ursula Wynhoven, ITU Representative to the United Nations, reiterated the firm commitment of ITU as a proud co-founder of the Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age.  The Organization champions diverse initiatives such as International Girls in ICT Day held annually in April as well as regional gender and tech initiatives such as “African Girls Can Code". 

Setting up the stage for the discussions, Mrs Gladys Mosomtai, Next Einstein Ambassador for Kenya in 2019 and UNESCO/L`’Oréal Award winner in 2018, voiced her commitment to the empowerment of women and girls. Championing for gender equality especially in STEM, she shared her experience in motivating the younger generations: “You don't have to be an extra ordinary girl to be able to pursue the STEM path.” Women rights are human rights”, she said, “there are many barriers along this journey, and one of them being we have a few role models that we can identify with and look up to.”

Reminding participants of the “common obligation to achieve gender equality in all fields of life”, H.E. Ambassador Georgi Velikov Panayotov, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Bulgaria to the United Nations, pointed out that women represented 52% of the total number of scientists and engineers in Bulgaria, ranking second highest in the European Union. He further encouraged young girls to pursue their education and to choose high technology and management career development” as “the increased participation of women in predominantly male sectors is indicative for the social progress towards gender equality.”

Ms Shilpa Pullela, Counsellor at the Australian Permanent Mission to the UN, shared the key takes from the national Advancing Women in STEM Strategy that aims to "enable STEM potential through education, supporting women in STEM careers and making women in STEM more visible".  Echoing other speakers, she joined her voice to the call for more women scientists role models as "one can't be what one can't see". Australia's first women in STEM ambassador, Professor Harvey Smith, launched the first STEM equity monitor in March 2020 and the report will be released annually now over the next 10 years. 

Urging the international community “to invest better and more efficiently into the girls’ equal access to quality, relevant and inclusive education, at all levels and in particular in STEM”, Marie Paule Roudil, Director of UNESCO New York Office, identified key barriers as well opportunities for women’s full engagement in sciences. “Women’s contribution to world’s scientific progress is essential in dealing with the complexity of global challenges,” she emphasized. UNESCO has adopted a holistic approach towards its global priority of promoting gender equality in its domains of expertise by ‘keeping the girls in the picture’ in the fields of science, technology and innovations.

Ola Zahran, Head of WIPO Coordination Office in New York, shared promising development that the number of women filing international patent applications doubled since 1995. Jelena Kovačević, Dean of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, introduced her school’s efforts in increasing the number of women in STEM and shared some of the lessons learned and experience on this regard. Also spoke at the event was Sana Khan, AI Lead for the Northeast Region at Microsoft, who shared the development in technological automation and emphasized the importance of creative skills. Last but not least, Victoria Alonsoperez, United Nations Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, shared her experience in flourishing in aerospace industry and encourages more women to rise to challenges.

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More about UNESCO Priority Gender Equality:

L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Awards: https://en.unesco.org/science-sustainable-future/women-in-science/laureates

The Global Education Coalition’s Gender Flagship -  a global collaborative platform to address the gender dimensions of COVID-19’s impact on education.

Girls back to school guide (developed with Malala Fund, Plan International, UNGEI, UNICEF) sets targeted recommendations to ensure continuity of learning in a safe, gender-responsive and child-friendly manner

Campaing Keeping girls in the picture   aimed at ensure that every girl can continue learning everywhere whether at school when it is safe and if these are open, or remotely when and as possible

UNESCO STEM and Gender Advancement (SAGA) Program: https://en.unesco.org/saga

UNESCO TeachHer initiative https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-and-gender-equality/stem/initiatives