Science – Technology – Innovation:Closing the Gender Gap to Meet the SDGs
Empower Women – gender, STI and the SDGs
Gender equality underpins all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals – it isn’t confined to SDG5 which explicitly targets discrimination, exploitation and violence directed at women and girls. So the SDGs that demand action on equitable distribution and access to science, technology and innovation (STI) are aimed not just at the world’s poorest and least developed communities, but at women and girls everywhere.
In March, UN Women, WIPO and UNESCO held an Expert Group Meeting where we looked at these linkages in the context of possible future scenarios (see background note), and gleaned a number of insights on potential trends, challenges and opportunities around gender and STI. And then, between 24 April and 8 May this year, we hosted an online discussion about this vital area of gender equality, asking the Empower Women community for their input.
We posed five questions that focused on inclusion, community, technology, resources and stereotypes. Your responses will help us work with national governments and policy makers to better plan and develop strategies that not only respond to today’s challenges, but also position women and issues of gender equality in STI looking forward.
The Empower Women community was also asked to imagine a future where gender equality in STI had been achieved, and where STI promoted women’s empowerment, gender equality and social good. This is what you said about what this future looks like and how we get there.
We asked – is “inclusion” enough? Will just having greater numbers of women in the STI ecosystem bring the future we want?
Inclusion as ‘more women’
Inclusion is often thought of in terms of increasing the numbers of women at every level of STI, from education, through entry level and up to decision-making positions.
However Hillary Strobel, social impact specialist and storyteller said: “Inclusion is not enough if proper care is not given to crafting an environment that meets the needs of both women and men equally. Plugging more women into a system that was built by and for the needs of men isn’t sustainable in the long run. Inevitable result: women don’t thrive equally there.”
This proof of this, she said, was the number of women dropping out in large numbers in mid-career. The consensus was, however, that encouraging more women to qualify and work in STI sectors was an important first step that matters for a number of reasons.
The ‘cultural bottleneck’ that constrains how many women can – or want to – join the sector has to be cleared. More women in the field, said some, would help close a number of facets of the gender gap – fairness, representation and generally held perceptions of what women can and can’t do. Higher numbers of women in STI would make for more dynamic and more sustainable STI, and inject much-needed balance into the field’s perceptions of what end-users – female and male – want.
To do this, said contributors, we can learn from other diversity-increasing initiatives such as parliamentary representation programs and supply-chain schemes.
Reading inclusion more broadly
However, contributors were also clear that ‘inclusion’, even in the context of getting more women into STI, needs to be read more broadly. It should include issues such as the quality of roles and working conditions in the field rather than the raw quantity, and a recognition that ‘women’ are not a homogenous group.
“10 great women who are working in an environment that is equally great are going to affect much more quality, lasting change than 100 great women working in a poor environment,” said Hillary Strobel. Others talked of the need for women mentors in our (especially girls’) daily lives, and especially in the lives of girls and young women.
Think intersectionalities and pay attention to needs of women with disabilities, said others. In fact, technology was likely to be great aid to the inclusion of the all society’s most vulnerable groups, offering access to health information, simple communication, and opportunities for independence and economic empowerment.
Inclusion that was real, rather than a PR exercise, would go beyond numbers and highlight certain valuable traits and characteristics typically seen as female’. Women’s ability to thrive and be competitive in STI also critically depended on the quality of the workplace environment and access to funding.
Inclusion alone is not enough
Most contributors felt strongly that inclusion was not enough and drew attention to the limitations of a focus on numbers, and highlighted other approaches that would lead to more gender-transformative STI.
Inclusion is too often framed as a ‘business case’, ‘bright futures’ or ‘economic opportunity’. Instead, the focus needs to shift to the development of education and working environments that encourage a range of values and competencies. These include collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, innovation, ethics and a knowledge of human rights and social responsibility alongside STEM subject teaching.
Women can find that inclusion is trap that ties them into patriarchal systems, cultures and rules and relations. Gloria Bonder, founder of the Center for Women’s studies, said: “When that happens, research proves that women’s options are to assimilate to that culture either as a second class, or as newcomers eager to be recognized within existing values and parameters. Or [they] abandon education careers, jobs or positions many times, living that as their own failure. Transformational change is more difficult and is long and never-ending process – but is [requisite] with the aspiration of a more fair, supportive and happier society.”
The overall influence of women and girls within STI systems and the relevance of STI to their needs and wants should also be taken into account. The influence of women is not only needed from the top down or in absolute numbers in ‘industry’. It should also feed in from the bottom up, and via inclusive channels through, for instance, participatory policy development, public comment and accountability mechanisms. We need to ensure that women and girls are active in these spaces.
Said Joanna Robaczewska, “We [tend to] look at individual contributions by using performance and output measures (what one can do, how much, how fast) instead of recognizing the actual impact on the individuals, community, society and economy – which is far more important for sustainable development.”
A more systematic approach should also address structural constraints such as discriminatory laws, access to and control over resources, participation in economic life, norms, access to health services and education, and decision-making power in the home.
Ultimately, inclusiveness needs to be built into the entire development infrastructure and reflected in political stability, well-functioning institutions, an educated workforce, a sound research and education infrastructure and linkage between public and private innovation actors. STI could play a key role in achieving this and in the overall development process.
“Go to the people: live with them, learn from them, start with what they know, build what they have.” Lao Tzu
The online discussion also posed the question of whether bottom-up and community-level engagement of women in STI offers additional or greater opportunities for creating more gender responsive STI, including in comparison to more top down systems?
It was agreed that both bottom-up and community-level engagement were essential.
As almost every grass-roots movement proves, bottom-up leadership creates a huge positive impact. Of course, ‘bottom-up’ no longer means only groups of people physically coming together to cooperate and act; the creation of virtual and online communities can bring influence to bear on a range of fronts.
Bottom-up influencers can be a ‘check and balance’; they can counter fears that ‘the master will use his tools to dismantle his own house’, and build a community’s confidence to collectively speak truth to power. By bringing to the fore inconvenient truths that counter mainstream patriarchal interests, they can disseminate ideas, develop organizing strategies and stimulate and coordinate opposition. When women form this type of ‘unionizing’ partnership, they build strength through numbers. The great advantage is that while the top levels of STI sector management and much formal science continue to be male-dominated, bottom-up power may offer an entry point for women and girls to get involved and exert influence
Education and awareness
Education is another bottom-up tool where it allows girls to develop their potential in STEM subjects so that their drive and interest serve as motivators. Awareness and information about the benefits of STEM for women and girls needs to be disseminated at the community level.
A key example of why STI ownership among women is crucial is food production. Women handle over 65% of food production and it is self-evident that they will want to know about improved planting methods, improved crop services and improved processing methods. When women are given access to education and information about the potential of STIs, they can become powerful creators of food production solutions that, for instance, reduce labour and improved standards of living. They also then see the need to encourage their daughters to pursue STEM subjects – and, in fact, to go to school.
STI innovation should address such issues of ownership, focusing on approaches that ask what communities really need.
However, the ‘top’ of the pyramid is still important and someone there still needs to be listening, says Hillary Stobel. “The World Bank points out in its citizen engagement project that meeting people involved in grass-roots change-making is only as effective as the overarching system is willing to accept that change. That fundamental social change – the top-down change – must also include women who are invested in the bigger picture.” It should also be borne in mind that the dichotomy of top-down and bottom up is not always useful – both levels influence and reinforce each other.
‘Group-think’ is a potential drawback of bottom-up action. Also, as one contributor put it: “There are as many ideas, motivations, special interests etc ., as there are people”. So how do we ensure that the narrative/message is well thought out? This suggests that we also need to consider how we break down the silo walls between women (for instance, poverty, privilege, race) and find what women have in common that will allow them to build social structures that supersede their immediate physical environments. Technology may well be a very useful tool for this process because it can transcend physical space. So it is important to look at mechanisms such as social media that can connect otherwise siloed women, or connect the top of the STI field to the ‘bottom’.
It also has to be said that time is a scarce resources for many women, and both bottom-up and community action can be time-consuming.
Contributors were also asked how technology might break down existing societal and power structures and / or create new ones? What are the implications for gender and STI – and is this a transformative opportunity that will shift underlying attitudes and practices and structural barriers around gender and result in positive substantive gains for women and society?
Sabin Muzzafar, founder of digital magazine Ananke, said: “Technology is not only on the forefront of every socio-economic and political endeavour, but it is the pillar on which all endeavours are made – so if you have equal representation in STI it will lead to greater, fairer representation in other spheres of society as well. ”
Technology was mostly discussed in the context of the Internet. Contributors saw it as vitally important, but also as a double-edge sword. While technology itself is neutral, society and our systems that give it a gendered nature. Effort should be invested in making technology subservient to the principles driving it (and its use) and ensuring that it does not create or advance inhibitors. There has to be a focus on rights and ethics in technology development – and we should remember that it can also be positively subversive.
Technology can bring powerful positive change to women’s lives; it offers economic empowerment and borderless jobs and the reduction of unpaid care work.
It can alert them to rights that are denied or unknown to them, bypassing traditional, off-limits or hard-to-access channels of information. It can empower them to question norms and offer new horizons and perspectives.
Its power to build communication and engagement can help break down old power structures and societal constraints. It has already been important for cross-cultural learning and understanding, helping women in many regions to understand their potential, skills and capabilities and to become effective in society. Contributors gave the examples of Arabic women and women in Afghanistan living in traditional and ‘closed’ societies, for whom information technology had opened up new horizons.
Information technology also makes ‘lightening quick’ engagement possible and, more than that, has also been shown capable of creating longer-term ‘thick’ engagement through issue-based platforms and software tools.
Finally, the internet is a highly accessible avenue towards learning for women and can help them fill the gaps in their STI engagement. It can keep them aware of technological developments and encourage them to adopt innovative practices and can allow for grassroots development rather than leaving people helpless while they wait for government or some other agency to deliver solutions.
Technology may not be viewed so favourably by women who fear it may take more away from them than it gives – for instance, semi-skilled women whose jobs might be lost to automation, such as the 3D printing of the craft products that give them their livelihood. And while technology can transcend boundaries, it can also be used by authorities to control and separate groups.
Clearly, by no means all women have access to or the freedom to use information technology. Even where they do, exposure to new ideas and the chance to learn, share and connect globally may not always be translated at the local micro-level into action. This can particularly be the case where family and community relationships play a stronger role in defining lives – and this is something that needs to be tackled.
Digital and financial inclusion platforms do empower, but use of them demands literacy and training. Those agencies interested in digital transformation and standardization should join forces, said contributors. There is also a need to find ways of overcoming the growing gaps in online access, and this is not just a matter of having the means to access hardware, but also the soft skills required to be able to use the technology.
Technology needs to be incorporated into our classrooms to inspire creativity and – crucially – early uptake among girls and young women. This will require a different approach to education with an emphasis on high-level skills that considers the implications for employment and provides both girls and boys with sound technical training. “The next generation of creators will embrace technology as their first language; learn by collaborating and communicating with anyone in the world; and create with touch, command with voice, and conceptualize in education,” said Peace Uzoma of Nigeria’s Youth for Technology Foundation.
The power that technology offers must be fairly distributed between all groups, including between genders, for it to support sustainability.
Most importantly, we need to move away from ‘perpetual pilot syndrome’ when trying to advance technology take-up and development. Instead, said contributors, we need a start-up mindset that treats people as people rather than guinea pigs in an experiment. Scaling up can happen quickly and even ‘virally’ with the right enabling environment.
Key technologies to watch
The discussion highlighted a range of areas in which contributors expected technology to come to the fore soon. These included the green economy (clean energy and water; IoT; additive manufacturing; artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous vehicles; nano- and biotechnology; materials science; energy storage; quantum computing and data science; and convergence of biological and technological systems.
Looking to the future, which resources will become more scarce / more valued, who will control and govern them and what overall value system will underlie resource development and allocation? We also asked the community what this means for gender and STI – what are the opportunities and challenges for women in various contexts and for those women directing and reaping the benefits of STI?
Within the resource discussion, it was felt that technology and education as an input to human resources would be essential and would determine the use and allocation of resources going forward. How resources are distributed – whether along gender lines and traditional ‘power’ lines - has not yet been answered.
Education can be transformative and must be a policy priority. Continued skill development and STEM education will need to be an integral part of education, and girls need to be included very early on at elementary school level. Teaching needs to be hands-on, applied and real-world. Technology and STEM teacher training is critical to the quality of the education delivered.
Mentoring and skilling-up significant numbers of women will be a key ingredient of technology-focused education that reaches girls, and it will need to be focused on its likely benefits in daily life
To keep up with technology changes, human resources will require PPP to make sure that skills and skill development is sustainable. A clear motive for investing in high quality education for all is that highly skilled and innovative labour will be valuable resources as technology evolves. Women’s entrepreneurial skills are important too, and they need the skills and knowledge to commercialize their own inventions.
If the development and distribution of STI is not inclusive, then emerging technologies in particular may generate extreme inequalities, and as natural resources become more scarce, technology will be an important resource to redress the balance and sustain good living and working conditions for all.
Contributors ended this discussion by posing a further question - how do we develop or allocate the resources created by technology, and how do we keep a check on that?
Finally, the community considered how we might dismantle gender stereotypes (bias, unconscious bias and self-perceptions) in STI?
Acting to combat stereotypes
Work to diminish the power of stereotypes needs to take place at every level in every sphere – from top to bottom of society, and at home, school, in organisations and in the political and social arenas.
We need to raise awareness amongst primary social agents – parents, families, immediate community circles –since they are the educators who influence girls’ perceptions most, starting at birth. Care, learning and interaction in the early years; teachers and curricula at school; and whether girls are allowed access to hands-on learning environments at home or in education.
Conscious and unconscious bias in mass and social media has to be challenged – seeing is believing, said contributors, and these fora are powerful influencers. But so too is interaction with peers and the socialization process, and this focuses attention on the need for positive role models and mentors to build girls’ confidence, show them the possibilities and help them overcome obstacles. Women leading women helps inspires yet more women to break through the mental chains placed on them.
In some communities, there was a real danger that those forces and agents who are unwilling to relinquish power to women might deny them access to education and healthcare as a way of maintaining their control. It might be possible to anticipate this kind of backlash and mitigate the blowback.
Key factors that help perpetuate female stereotypes were identified. For instance, a move towards equal care responsibilities at home would make a difference in creating opportunities for women. Equally, moves to shift gender norms needed to take into account male norms and involve men in the conversation. A focus on changing men’s mindsets should consider the drivers behind male mindsets of rage, repression, and scarcity, and include men in gender diversity initiatives. Men’s involvement in changing stereotypes adds a layer of legitimacy, whether real or perceived, and increases buy-in.
Finally, technology can be used to combat and debunk a powerful aspect of stereotyping - taboos such as breastfeeding, menstruation and FGM. It can be used to educate and, with repetition, condition.
Stereotypes around STI
Contributors identified several ways in which the norm that ‘STI is not for girls’ or ‘women have no aptitude for STI’ might be challenged.
- Parenting programmes could include messages on how to encourage daughters to be interested in and enjoy STI subjects.
- The emphasis on how the STI ecosystem is shaped could be shifted so that women and men develop it together – for instance, workplaces currently reflect men’s thinking processes.
- STI workplace environments could be made more inclusive and ‘woman-friendly’, and CEOs and top levels of corporate management must make gender equality a priority. Outcomes of these types of initiatives might include revised codes of conduct and more inclusive policies and regulations.
- The male-dominated nature of the STI field might be dismantled through equal representation.
- Corporate understanding of what constitutes a productive employee needs to be revised away from the full time, conventional working hours model and towards more flexible forms of work.
The challenge is to create a vision of the kind of future we want to see. We need to be prepared to build the world that just might work instead of continuing with what hasn’t worked.
This would require a paradigm shift away from consumption-based societies. Resource allocation is a global issue, not local or national, and affects the whole family of humanity. We need to develop social cultures that value happiness, sharing and taking care of each other; that are willing to replenish resources in a communal setting; and accept rights-based development driven by women’s rights.
Ultimately the key issue is power relations. Gender is a social construct, but also one that serves power relations in contexts such as family, community, society and economic systems. Power has a way of reproducing itself and finding new avenues for control. This may continue to break down along gender lines or may be manifested in other forms of inequality (haves and have-nots, with gender equality perhaps only for the ‘haves’). It is essential to be constantly mindful of this dynamic and it seems that there is emerging recognition of this in the mainstream media.
Power relations (gender, socio-economic, cultural forms) can be seen in the way that resources, autonomy, capacities, opportunities and other social goods are distributed or denied to women. This in turn determines how women can lead and benefit from STI. Key assumptions that must be questioned are our conceptions of power, and our theories of change about how the playing field might be levelled for women in areas such as education, policy and planning strategies.
While there was very strong support for community engagement strategies and bottom up efforts among our contributors, women need to be involved in both bottom-up emergent leadership and top-down ecosystem design. Each level of influence is crucial to the success of future generations of women and STI.
Shifting perceptions and norms is a vital aspect of breaking down stereotypes, and this needs to involve all levels of society – and men. Pervasive stereotypes and norms begin to shape behaviour and aspirations from the earliest years in home life, and continue in the workplace and beyond.
Structural constraints and overall ecosystems need to be addressed.
Education and Skill Development
The most essential first step is delivering early and comprehensive education for girls on STI and in the ecosystem, that surrounds them. This is necessary but it is not happening.
STEM education needs to be extended to include skills such as social responsibility, leadership, critical thinking and humanity so that STI takes account of human needs and the social good.
A crucial question is whether women can be positioned to leapfrog straight to high value, new economy or society positions. At present women are often playing catch-up in STI sectors, and in accessing and benefitting from technology.
Emphasis within STI
While the common perception of STI focusses largely on digital technology and the internet, there are many aspects of STI that are seemingly not adequately on the radar. Assumptions about what STI is and can do need to be expanded.
Properly directed, technology can be subversive in breaking down harmful practices and narratives.
Shaping future policy objectives now will help create the tools needed to anticipate, plan, check assumptions and embrace systems thinking, so that we can better address the complexity and rapidly changing nature of gender and STI for SDGs.
The Sustainable Development Goals represent the commitment of member states and others in the global community to achieve social, economic and environmental justice for a sustainable world. Advancement of gender equality, and equitable science, technology and innovation (STI) are explicit objectives under several of the SDGs, but they also underpin all of them.
In March, UN Women, WIPO and UNESCO held an Expert Group Meeting where we looked at these linkages in the context of possible future scenarios (see background note), and gleaned a number of insights on potential trends, challenges and opportunities around gender and STI.
We are inviting you to consider and respond to five questions below derived from this process to help us work with national governments and policy makers to better plan and develop strategies that 1) respond to today’s challenges but also position women and issues of gender equality in STI looking forward and 2) that realize our preferred future.
UN Women, WIPO and UNESCO are asking you to imagine a future where gender equality in STI, and STI that promotes women’s empowerment, gender equality and social good, is achieved. What does this preferred future look like and how do we get there?
What are your reactions and thoughts on the following questions and propositions which may influence this future? Where are examples of current practices that, if amplified, would enable us to better respond to changing realities and realize opportunities while preventing or mitigating threats?
Q1. Is “inclusion” enough? Does just having greater numbers of women in the STI ecosystem result in the future we want?
Q2. Does bottom-up and community level engagement of women in STI offer additional or greater opportunities for creating more gender responsive STI, including in comparison to more top down systems?
Q3. How might technology break down existing societal and power structures and / or create new ones? What are the implications for gender and STI and is this a transformative opportunity that will shift underlying attitudes and practices and structural barriers around gender and result in positive substantive gains for women and society?
Q4. Looking to the future, which resources will become more scarce / more valued, who will control and govern them and what overall value system will underlie resource development and allocation? What does this mean for gender and STI and what are the opportunities and challenges for women in various contexts and in directing and reaping the benefits of STI?
Q5. How do we dismantle gender stereotypes (bias, unconscious bias and self-perceptions) in STI?
Lubna Dajani - Futuristas, Co-Founder
A visionary leader with 25+ years of experience in creating digital transformation in a vast array of industries and companies from just an idea to multi-billion dollar, including non-profit and NGO’s. Lubna is currently the Chief Strategy Officer for Intercede, a cyber-secutrity company focused on identity, a visiting scholar at NYU and Co-Founder of Futuristas, an organization dedicated to empowering, inspiring and supporting girls and young women professionals in science, technology and the arts. She is always found at the heart of the action bringing an important innovation, new concept or out of the box idea which is focussed on improvement and new found value, with a passion for creating holistic user experiences, which bridge the digital and physical world. As an international speaker and author she brings viewpoints on the opportunities created at the intersection of disruptive technologies from datavisualization, AI, and immersive experiences to digital fabrication; as these technologies are fueling the new wave of innovation. Inventor of Allternet and Co-Founder of MobileMondays. Honored Mobile Women to Watch in 2010 by Mobile Marketer and among Silicon Alley’s Top 100s.
Peace Uzoma - Youth for Technology Foundation, Programme manager.
Peace oversees the implementation of various gender-related programmes, positively impacting the lives of many Nigerian girls in STEM, entrepreneurship, and life skills. She mentors dozens of girls and young women with the focus of inspiring them as the next generation of innovators. Gender equality is critical in Nigeria—each girl learns to overcome cultural/systemic biases and to use skills that frees them a life of suppressed dreams. The Youth for Technology Foundation use human-centered learning. Participants learn skills to address local problems and use technology in response. Experts teach girls how to ask questions and find answers to issues that affect them through project-based learning. In doing so, they learn such important skills as leadership, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and teamwork.
Mark Kaplan - Unilever, Global VP, Sustainable Solutions
Mark is a globally experienced and recognized thought leader in the mobile marketing industry. During his career Mark has led the creation, production and commercialization of platforms in mobile commerce (PayPal Text2Buy), mobile donation (Text2Give), and mobile sampling (ShopText). PayPal and Text 2 Buy/Give are now fully merged into the overall PayPal Mobile product and form one of the most successful mCommerce platforms in the world. Mark has also led and managed foundational global platform strategies for Fortune 100 corporations such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, ESPN and Nike. Specifically, Mark led the strategies for Nike Jordan’s first mobile campaign, ESPNs first apps (BottomlinePro, Gamecast and Fantasy Football) and integrated messaging campaign (Who’s Hot on Sportscenter), the foundation of P&Gs global mobile marketing enterprise, and Coca-Cola’s 2012 London Olympics platform that won campaign of the year from the Mobile Marketing Association. Mark was also the founding Co-Chairman of the Mobile Marketing Association (“MMA”) mCommerce committee, co-author of MMA mobile couponing best practices and CTIA’s usshortcodes.com connectivity matrix.
This discussion run from 24 April until 8 May. We look forward to hearing from you!