Women and girls in science | Daily News

Women and girls in science

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in this region where girls are not discriminated against in terms of education. Equal opportunities are available here for both males and females to pursue secondary and higher education. But even then, we need more girls to learn STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects at both school and university level.

This is one issue that we have to ponder on as we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science which falls today (11). STEM specialists are increasingly in demand in the worldwide job market and if we do not encourage more females to take up these subjects, we will lose out. In fact, the Government aims to realign school curricula and university courses with a prime focus on STEM to tap into this market, in order to make “unemployed graduates” a thing of the past.

This year’s Women and Girls in Science Day will be celebrated under the theme “Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19”. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated the critical role of women researchers in different stages of the fight against COVID-19, from advancing the knowledge on the virus, to developing techniques for testing, and finally to creating vaccines against the virus. The ongoing pandemic is proof that our future will be marked by scientific and technological progress that can only be achieved when women and girls are creators, owners and leaders of science, technology and innovation.

In our journey towards response and recovery, Sri Lankan female researchers working here and abroad have been among those pioneering the COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Women played an important role in science even before the pandemic, accounting for nearly half of undergraduate enrolments in science, technology, economics and mathematics (STEM).

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic also had a significant negative impact on women scientists, particularly affecting those at the early stages of their career, and thus contributing to widening the existing gender gap in science, and revealing the gender disparities in the scientific system, which need to be addressed by new policies, initiatives and mechanisms to support women and girls in science in all countries.

Today, the 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly will be held at the United Nations Headquarters virtually. With great momentum and interest to accelerate progress in achieving the 2030 Development Agenda and its 17 Global Goals, the 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly theme will be ‘Beyond the Borders: Equality in Science for Society’, with a special focus on the value of the social aspects and cultural dimensions in Science, Technology and Innovation to enhance sustainable development programmes.

Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Over the past 15 years, the global community and countries such as Sri Lanka have made a lot of effort in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science. Yet women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science globally.

According to UNESCO’s, Girls’ and Women’s Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) report (2017), female students represent only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study at higher education level globally. The report notes that gender differences in STEM education participation at the expense of girls begin as early as in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in Science- and Math-related play and are more visible at higher levels of education.

At present, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women. According to UNESCO data (2014 - 2016), only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3 per cent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5 per cent) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8 per cent).

Long-standing biases and gender stereotypes are steering girls and women away from science related fields. As in the real world, the world on-screen reflects similar biases—the 2015 Gender Bias Without Borders study by the Geena Davis Institute showed that of the onscreen characters with an identifiable STEM job, only 12 per cent were women.

Women who have made significant progress in STEM fields in their respective countries should be duly recognized and rewarded. This will be an example and inspiration to young girls who would like to choose a career in a STEM discipline. Schools and universities must popularise STEM subjects among girls. The Government should help by providing STEM subject teachers especially to schools in rural areas, where the focus on STEM is minimal. The Government’s recent move to provide laptops to all undergraduate students on concessionary terms will also help female university students following STEM courses to achieve better results.

COVID has given us an ideal opportunity to recognize the role played by women in the advancement of science. They should be given all opportunities to rise and shine in this vital field.