UN Policy Dialogue Tackles the Challenge of Increasing Women’s Participation and Leadership in Science

September 22, 2022

Panelists discuss the challenges facing women scientists during policy dialogue at UN compound in Beijing

22 September, Beijing – A high-level policy dialogue convening key stakeholders from around the world to discuss empowering women in science and research took place today at the UN Compound in Beijing.

The event, Leading the Way: Empowering Women and Girls in Science and Innovation, was jointly organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Women, and supported by the China Women’s Association for Science and Technology (CWAST).

Specifically, it explored the factors impeding women’s participation and leadership in science, ways to remove these visible and invisible barriers, and how to foster an enabling environment to help more women choose science careers and progress to leadership roles.

“Access to the field of science is both a crucial way for women to participate in political, economic and social affairs, and an important channel for them to influence the world's development,” said WANG Hongyang, President of the China Women’s Association for Science and Technology. “Women offer unique viewpoints and ways of thinking that are conducive to technological innovation, progress and development.”

Globally, women are currently significantly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. In 2019, women only made up 29.3% of scientific research positions in the world, and 23.9% in East Asia and the Pacific.[1]

Women’s presence in science-related leadership positions is even lower, as the percentage of women decreases with each stage of advancement throughout science careers.[2] Given the rapid pace at which breakthroughs and innovations in STEM are transforming the world, this gap puts women at risk of being increasingly marginalized and excluded from the economy of the future.

“Science and technology will create the highest-paying jobs of tomorrow, but women are being left behind today,” said Kanni Wignaraja, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Regional Director for Asia and Pacific in her keynote address. “Unless women are equally represented in such areas, their needs are at risk of being overlooked in how our future is designed.”

The policy dialogue took stock of the good practices, strategies, and initiatives around the world that can help improve the engagement, achievement, and recognition of women in science. A diverse range of experts were invited including scientists, policy experts, scholars from universities and research institutions, as well as representatives from UN agencies and the international community. 

“The distance to gender equality is still a long journey, but gender-responsive science and research can accelerate the progress,” said Sarah Knibbs, UN Women Regional Director a.i. for Asia and the Pacific. “If it is done in a proper way, science and innovation can be the catalyst to improve gender equality and disrupt harmful gender norms.”

The event’s first panel discussion explored the root causes for gender disparities in science, and measures to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects. In particular, panelists looked at the affect of socio-cultural influences and the importance of helping to raise girls’ level of ambition in becoming scientists starting from a young age.

The second panel examined the main factors, as well as some profound implications, of what is often referred to as the “leaky pipeline” – high attrition rates among women pursuing science careers. Key insights included the visible and invisible bias and structural barriers women face as they pursue science careers, and the importance of a supporting network, mentorship, creating environments that encourage women to proactively seek recognition.

The third panel looked at the role of different stakeholders in fostering an enabling environment and systemic support that incentivizes women to remain in STEM fields and become leaders. Panelists emphasized the need for increased funding directed towards women scientists’ research and publication opportunities and visibility, as well as policies that encourage equal sharing of unpaid care responsibilities so that women can have better participation and development in scientific fields.

The event concluded with a “fireside chat” – an in-depth discussion with two of China’s leading female scientists: LU Zhi, Founder of the Shanshui Conservation Center and Vice President of the China Women’s Association for Science and Technology, as well as LIU Ying, Associate Dean and Professor at the College of Future Technology at Peking University. The discussion was moderated by the Ambassador of Ireland to China, Ann Derwin.

Key findings and takeaways from the one-day event will form the basis of a comparative study on different countries’ best practices and experiences to empower women and unleash their untapped potential in science.


[1] UNESCO, STEM education for girls and women: breaking barriers and exploring gender inequality in Asia, 2020

[2] World Bank, The Equality Equation: Advancing the Participation of Women and Girls in STEM, 2020, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/34317/Main-Report.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y