Do the maths: future-proof economies need women and girls in STEM

February 10, 2023
Photo: UNDP Georgia

When Dr. Saule Zholdayakova was a young girl in Kazakhstan, she was troubled by the smoke coming out of the copper factories. She dreamed about how she would fix the air pollution.

Fast forward many years, she is now Head of the Hydrogen Energy Competence Center working to reduce the country's usage of fossil fuels. Dr. Zholdayakova is just one example of women in STEM striving to solve the world’s biggest challenges.  Dr. Özlem Türeci, founder of BioNTech, invented the first COVID-19 vaccine. Drs. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery and development of gene editing technologies.

Despite major contributions made by women in STEM and the growing evidence that diversity makes companies better, women and girls must still grapple with age-old social norms and systemic hurdles. Gender bias in the classroom and curriculum, family expectations and lack of support for caregivers in the workplace – have resulted in slow growth in women’s participation in STEM – even if they have the education.

In Europe and Central Asia, the share of women enrolled in university ICT programmes ranges from 14 percent in Georgia to 36 percent in Albania and Azerbaijan. In most countries and territories, women represent less than 40 percent of the ICT workforce and most likely occupy jobs with less status and decision-making power.  In the Eastern partnership states, only 20 percent of leaders in ICT are women.

This is a major concern because 90 percent of future jobs will require STEM skills. The COVID-19 pandemic fast-tracked the digitalization of economies and forever changed the nature of work, but changes in policies and investments in workforce readiness are barely keeping pace. There is a growing mismatch of skills that workers have and employers need. This is not only a threat to livelihoods but also to economies.

Let’s do the math: In achieving gender parity in STEM from education to leadership roles, a lot can be gained by way of productivity, innovations and profitability.  Not to mention that this could futureproof the livelihoods and status of women and girls.    

Can we learn from the past?

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan

From the outset, disruptive technologies like the Internet were developed and influenced by men resulting in unintended consequences such as technology-facilitated gender-based violence, online hate speech and sexist hiring algorithms that put women and girls at heightened risk every day.  Currently, there is excitement and concern about generative artificial intelligence and the metaverse. A recent study by McKinsey found that in organizations shaping metaverse standards, 90 percent of leadership roles are held by men.

The reality is the digitalization of economies will not slow down and wait for gender parity in STEM. People in decision-making roles must wake up and consider from the outset the people who are innovating and benefitting from future technologies and infrastructure to ensure that no one is left even further behind.

Changing the gender barrier paradigm requires a coordinated, collective approach among governments, employers, educators, and families to shift attitudes, biases in the curriculum and bold, gender-responsive reforms in education and labour market policy. Here are a few ways to support multistakeholder action:

  • Generate high-level support for gender equality in STEM

 On 11 February, International Day of Women and Girls in Science, women in science, youth, experts and professionals gather at UN Headquarters for high-level discussions on women and girls’ roles in advancing the sustainable development goals, namely sustainable cities and communities.  The goal is to catalyze investments and strengthen ties between science, policy and society for strategies oriented towards an equal and progressive future for women and girls.

This takes place against the backdrop of cities undergoing major transformations as more people move to urban areas. This trend is expected to continue, and by 2050 7 of 10 people will live in cities. Cities have historically been planned and designed by and consequently for able-bodied, cisgendered men. Women and girls’ safety, mobility needs, health and accessibility needs were not taken into account. Poorly lit streets, lack of public, green spaces, and unequal access to affordable housing put the lives of women and girls at risk.

  • Invest in projects involving people at all levels

Consider working with different sectors and groups to pool financial resources, knowledge, and expertise. Multi-stakeholder projects can better benefit everyone involved, including increased cooperation, improved implementation and greater sustainability and trust.

Through UniSat, a nanosatellite initiative made possible through UNICEF’s partnership with the Science and Technology Park of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, young women and girls in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan learn aerospace-related tech skills and improve confidence for working in STEM-related fields. Projector Creative and Tech Foundation, with the support of the Ministry of Digital Transformation in Ukraine and UNDP, skills and reskills women refugees from Ukraine to find jobs in technology and creative industries. With the Akelius Foundation, UNICEF in Greece provides digital learning opportunities for refugee and migrant youth, especially girls, increasing access to digital learning and ensuring quality education.

  • Harness the power of informal women’s and girls’ networks

Informal networks can support individuals looking to build their careers, develop their professional skills and connect with others in their field. The global virtual STEMinists Network, facilitated by UNDP and UNICEF, connects women and girls in STEM and individuals representing the public and private sectors, civil society organizations, international organizations and academia to exchange best practices, network and collaborate. Members can also curate events like virtual mentorship circles for women and girls in Europe and Central Asia, dialogues on women’s role in climate action and virtual conferences presenting research and case studies unpacking the root causes underlying the low participation of girls and women in STEM industries and academia.

As the world faces overlapping challenges in climate change, conflict and a post-pandemic recovery, the labour market must free itself of gender biases and stereotypes and harness the potential of more women like Drs. Zholdayovakova, Türeci, Doudna and Charpentier and all the girls who dream to change the world of today.

For the next phase of the Digital Era, policy makers and gatekeepers in public and private sectors must acknowledge the value of women and girls in STEM and focus on closing gender gaps as a strategy for recovery and resilience. We need to accelerate our collective action, investments and an enabling environment to ensure women and girls have equal access to technology and digital skills training to learn and advance equally.