On September 17, 2021, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) hosted the regional conference STEM4ALL: Accelerating gender equality, which gathered 196 participants, including gender champions, policy makers, and gender experts as well as development practitioners to discuss viable and practical ways to align and coordinate efforts to dismantle the social norms that hold girls and women back from accessing opportunities in high-growth sectors such as computer science and artificial intelligence from the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) region, and beyond.
During the event, prominent speakers shared experiences and insights on how to dismantle gender norms and address gender barriers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), to increase women’s participation in these fields and boost their economic empowerment.
Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, Assistant UN Secretary-General, Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Europe and Central Asia, keynoted the conference. Ms Spoljaric Egger highlighted the interconnectivity among the future of work, STEM fields and women’s economic empowerment. While the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted women’s employment, globally and in the region, it has nonetheless accelerated the transition to the future of work, which lies in STEM fields. According to Ms Spoljaric, leaving behind women, who are significantly underrepresented in STEM occupations, means denying: “half of humanity the opportunity to enter and succeed in this high-growth sector that powers the green and digital transformation in COVID-19 response”.
Building on this, the conference fostered a conversation to raise awareness on the need to enhance cross-sector collaboration among different stakeholders (governments, academia, multilateral organizations, private sector, and civil society) to tackle gender barriers in STEM. Under the flagship of the STEM4All platform, launched earlier this year by UNDP to share knowledge and build coalitions for the advancement of gender equality in STEM, and with the collaboration and support from UNDP Accelerator Labs in the ECA region, the event presented recent findings and best practices, and highlighted the importance of adopting joint actions to dismantle social norms and barriers preventing women from choosing STEM fields in tertiary education, advancing in STEM careers and achieving their full potential.
As stressed by Dr Julia Lee, Executive Vice Provost at UTEC and Lecturer at Harvard University, in her keynote speech, although there are no significant differences in STEM abilities between girls and boys, women and girls are a minority of STEM tertiary students and graduates, and their underrepresentation increases along the pathway. The ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor clearly describes how cultural stereotypes, a lack of supportive environments and family encouragement, few women role models, gender pay gaps, unequal career advancement policies and unwelcoming workplaces, represent major obstacles to women’s and girls’ thriving in STEM careers. Measures promoting public recognition of women role models, STEM curricula and up-skilling and re-skilling programmes, initiatives combating harmful gender stereotypes, together with flexible and family-friendly workplace policies, inclusive work environments, and investments in affordable childcare, are therefore key to ensuring that women advance in STEM careers on equal footing with men.
The conference was the first learning network catalysed by UNDP Accelerator Labs and the STEM4All platform to build momentum and support women and girls in STEM. By the end of the conference, participants were invited to participate in an “Action Tree” exercise, where they could indicate their fields of interest for further collaboration, including communication, research, programs, and opportunities for girls and women. Sixty-six participants expressed their commitment for further collaboration to build a community of practice on STEM4ALL.
As noted by Ms Spoljaric, “the world and the future of work need women's skills, perspectives, talents and leadership, as much as those of men. Let us seize this opportunity to move towards an equal future.”
- For more information about how you can support women and girls in STEM in the region, please contact Tiffany Sprague, STEM4ALL platform coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org
- For information about the Accelerator Labs in STEM, please contact Jenny Jenish kyzy (Ensi Tszie), Head of Experimentation, UNDP Accelerator Lab in Kyrgyzstan at email@example.com