Building peace in the minds of men and women

Women are a necessity for science, panel observes

Although the title of the panel discussion at the United Nations' Palais des Nations in Geneva (Switzerland) on 2 July ended in a question mark, by the time the session wrapped up, no participant was left in any doubt as to whether involving girls in science should be a priority for any education system or whether science could be done without women.

The panel discussion on ‘Women in science – a necessity?’ was organised by UNESCO, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the International Federation of University Women (IFUW); it was moderated by CERN’s Manjit Dosanjh, who is also a member of IFUW, the oldest NGO fostering gender equality through education.

‘There is no question mark. The answer is “Yes, women are a necessity for science,’” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in opening the panel discussion. ‘I think we all agree we live in a new age of limits, in terms of resources, in terms of the boundaries of the planet. This means we must make far more of the boundless, renewable energy that is human ingenuity. We must release the full powers of innovation, to craft new solutions that are inclusive, just and sustainable. This is why gender equality in the sciences is so vital. This is an issue of human rights.’

The problem of involving young girls in science starts early, often at high school where science and technology subjects tend to be perceived as being more suitable for boys than for girls. The end result is that women make up fewer than 10% of members of the scientific advisory boards of the top 100 high-tech companies in the world.

‘The higher you go in education and career level, the worse the situation is for women,’ confirmed Monique Morrow, Chief Technology Officer for Asia and Distinguished Consulting Engineer at Cisco Systems. ‘At CISCO, we have a slogan, the field is cool and geek is chic, but unfortunately this message does not reach enough girls.’

This analysis was shared by Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Chief of the Strategic Planning and Membership department at ITU. ‘In our Bright Future report, we wrote that the lack of interest in scientific and technological matters among girls is essentially a consequence of the attitude of parents and teachers’, she remarked. ‘Perception is a real problem: girls do not want to choose a course where they are the only girl. ITU recently teamed up with American actress Geena Davis, who is focusing on building role models for girls. The ITU motto has become “If she can see it, she can be it. With these initiatives, we would like girls to understand the opportunities that science and technology offer and see that they have a choice’, she concluded. ‘We would like parents to realize that this is a terrific fields for girls!’

The importance of involving teachers and the whole education system more closely was reinforced by CERN Director-General, Rolf Heuer, who was also the only man on the panel! ‘We are increasingly dependent on science and technology but also increasingly ignorant,’ he observed. ‘We need to attract young people and keep them interested. He added that ‘there are three “Es”: entice young girls and women to enter science, employ them – and this is a point that we should address through equitable processes– and enable, that is, create an inclusive work environment that allows everybody to give of their best. We should then add another two “Es”: excellence and enhancement!

‘Diversity based on excellence is the right approach,’ he continued. ‘Teachers are key in this because they allow us to keep up the momentum over the long term. Governments should continue to invest in education and research even during economic downturns because this is the basis of everything.’

One example of how women can succeed in science even when the context is tough was personified by physicist Francisca Okeke from Nigeria, a L’Oréal−UNESCO Laureate. The story of her life and her passion for science enthralled the public attending the event.

‘I am very happy that the discussion has succeeded in engaging not only the panellists but also the audience,’ commented Manjit Dosanjh at the close of the event. ‘I think we have achieved the objective, which was to enlighten our thoughts on this topic. All the contributions effectively did so,’ she concluded.

As CERN’s Diversity Programme Leader Sudeshna Datta−Cockerill pointed out, it was refreshing to note the gender mix in the audience. ‘It is crucial that we engage our male colleagues as allies in our efforts to recruit and retain women in science’, she said. ‘This concerns us all. Among the large audience, there were indeed a few men present… It’s a start!’

The side event on women in science took place at the start of this year’s ministerial review, which winds up on 26 July. The ministerial review is organized each year by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. This year’s theme was Science, technology and innovation, and the potential of culture, for promoting sustainable development and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

This article by Antonella Del Rosso is due to be published in the CERN Bulletin in July 2013.