Strengthening girls’ involvement in STEM – an accelerator of sustainable development

On 9 March 2015, UNESCO Director- General, Irina Bokova, took part in an event entitled “Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM): Progress, Challenges, post-2015 opportunities for furthering the goals of the Beijing Platform for Action.”

Organized by the Permanent Mission of Latvia to the United Nations, the event took place in the presence of the Minister of Education and Science of Latvia, Ms. Mārīte Seile, the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. Jo Handelsman, Vinay Oberoi, Secretary of State for Women and Child Development, India, and the Vice-President for L’Oréal Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives, Lauren Paige.

“Twenty years after, we are not there yet,” declared the Director-General. “Only 30% of the world’s researchers are women.”

She highlighted that there are three gaps at least -- a gap in the number of girls and women in STEM, a lack of disaggregated data to fully understand the complexities that influence women’s participation in this field and a gap in the lack of effective and targeted policies to address this issue.

The Minister of Education and Science of the Republic of Latvia noted that in Latvia girls outperform boys in STEM subjects at the pre and secondary school levels, highlighting the important role played by parents and teachers in developing girls interest in STEM from the early stages of education.

"The quality of education is as high as the quality of teachers," she said.

H.E. Vinay Oberoi, Secretary in the Ministry for Women and Child Development of India noted that the general decrease in enrollment of both boys and girls in basic sciences, coupled with a higher dropout rate of girls in higher education, represent major obstacles for girls progress in STEM.

To address these obstacles, he noted the importance of combating stereotypes, promoting women entrepreneurs and encouraging girls’ access to STEM, by catering to specific needs of women and girls who wish to pursue scientific careers.

Dr Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, highlighted that engaging women and minorities in STEM is one of the key objectives of the current Administration, in view of increasing the number of STEM workers in the country.

She identified three priority areas in this regard: the quality of teaching and active and engaged learning at all levels; addressing implicit bias against women in STEM and addressing the image of STEM and STEM carriers.

Ms Lauren Paige, L'Oreal US Vice President of Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives, reiterated that the "world needs science and science needs women".

She noted that the success of L'Oreal in terms of promoting gender equality lays in providing an enabling environment for women, who constitute more than 70% of researchers and occupy leadership roles in the company.

Calling for more partnerships to foster change from top down and bottom up, the Director-General gave some examples of UNESCO’s work in this field, including the Global STEM Alliance, the UNESCO-L’Oréal for Women in Science programme, the Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education, and a joint initiative with the Packard Foundation and in collaboration with the governments of Ethiopia and Tanzania entitled “Crowdsourcing Girls’ Education: A Community-Based Approach to Lowering Drop-Out Rates in Secondary Schools in Ethiopia and Tanzania”.     

As the sustainable development goals are being developed, the Director-General underlined that “this is an opportunity to send clear, strong messages that strengthening girls’ involvement in STEM as an accelerator of sustainable development.”

“If we change the face of science, we can change the world,” concluded Irina Bokova.

On the same day, the Director-General attended the opening session of the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The event was opened by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Executive Director of UN Women and the Administrator of the United Nations Development Fund.

UNESCO Report: A Complex Formula: Girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in Asia