The United Nations observed the sixth International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The sciences still have a severe underrepresentation of women and girls. Women and girls also face more barriers in the field of science due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless, they have made important contributions to the fight against COVID-19. The contributions of women also highlight the importance of science and gender equality for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Gender Disparities in the Sciences
About 40% of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce is made up of women, the majority of whom work in healthcare. Engineering and technology fields still have an underrepresentation of women. Gender gaps in the sciences form from an early age due to many factors such as socioeconomic status, gender bias and stereotypes as well as the lack of role models in those fields. When girls receive the same exposure to science and technology as boys do, girls have the potential to achieve similar or higher proficiency levels.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created many setbacks for women in STEM and in general. Many adolescent girls had to drop out of school to take on household responsibilities. As schools and childcare facilities remain closed, women scientists have to take on the bulk of childcare duties and are limited in the number of projects they can take on and in their research time. This then limits how much they can advance in their careers.
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
In February 2015, the Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT) and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) organized the first High-Level World Women’s Health and Development Forum, which is when the idea for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science first came about.
Two months after the forum ended, the executive director of RASIT, HRH Princess Dr. Nisreen El-Hashemite, who is often affectionately referred to as the “Science Princess,” wrote a letter to the 69th president of the United Nations General Assembly on behalf of all those in attendance at the forum. She called for February 11 to be declared the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
RASIT collaborated closely with the Permanent Mission of Malta for the United Nations and the Maltan government to write a resolution that would include this day in the U.N. official Calendar of Observances. In December 2015, women in the sciences watched as the General Assembly adopted the resolution that made the International Day of Women and Girls in Science official.
Contributions of Women to COVID-19 Response
For this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, U.N. Women spotlighted women who have made significant contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic. It notes that 70% of all healthcare and social workers are women. These women are working on the frontlines of the pandemic, risking their lives every single day to treat patients. Women have also been at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development.
- Özlem Türeci is a scientist and physician and co-founder of BioNTech, the first company to develop an RNA-based vaccine for COVID-19. Katalin Karikó’s discovery of the therapeutic possibilities of mRNA made this development possible.
- Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is a vital member of the U.S. government’s vaccine research, working on the team that developed a vaccine that is more than 90% effective. Additionally, a 14-year-old girl, Anika Chebrolu, identified a lead molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19. This discovery could potentially inhibit COVID-19.
- Furthermore, Thai digital product designer and front-end developer, Ramida Juengpaisal, created a tracker containing vital information about COVID-19, which helps to stop the spread of misinformation.
- Lastly, to help people affected by domestic violence and abuse during stay-at-home orders, Megs Shah and Fairuz Ahmed founded the Parasol Cooperative. The Parasol Cooperative connects survivors and at-risk individuals with the necessary services.
Science and Gender Equality and the SDGs
Science and gender equality are important parts of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The partnership between RASIT, the government of Malta and the Permanent Mission of Malta is a perfect example of SDG 17 in action, strengthening global partnerships for the purpose of sustainable development. Many of the targets of SDG 4, ensuring quality education for all, are related to ensuring that both genders have the same educational opportunities from early childhood and beyond. SDG 5 calls for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
From affordable and clean energy (SDG 7) to conserving life below water and on land (SDGs 14 and 15), the SDGs all have science and technology woven into them. Inclusive societies that prioritize women steer technological and scientific innovation. Recognizing the contributions of women through International Day of Women and Girls in Science will encourage more women to join the field.