Speech: Making innovation work for women

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Yannick Glemarec at the Global Science, Technology and Innovation Conference (G-STIC) 2017 on 24 October.

Date: Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen and dear UN colleagues,

UN Women was created in September 2010, it is the only UN agency established this century.

Its creation came from a double recognition: first, that progress towards gender equality and women empowerment were slow and uneven; and second that gender equality and women empowerment was both a fundamental right and a pre-condition for sustainable development.

The rate of progress on gender equality and women empowerment directly impacts progress on all the Sustainable Development Goals, either positively or negatively.

Based on current trajectories, existing interventions will not suffice to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Take some of the following examples: The first target of SDG 4 is to ensure that by 2030, all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education. However, the world will be at least 50 years late in achieving its global education commitments based on existing trends.

We are not faring better with goal 5 for gender parity. It is estimated that it will be 50 years before there is parity in politics at the parliamentarian levels and 170 years before women worldwide earn as much as men.

Similarly, goal 13 is to take urgent action to climate change and its impacts. Without an immediate and dramatic inflection in our GHG emissions, the window of opportunity to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels will most likely be closed by 2030.

However, trends are not a fatality. History shows that trends can be broken with innovation in policy, institutions, management models, finance, sciences and technology.

A single institutional innovation at the turn of the 19th century, the limited stock company, allowed early innovators and industrialists to pool resources and risks and finance the railways and factories of our industrial revolutions.

The capacity of innovation to break global development trends is recognized in the sustainable development goals. While SDG 9 focuses on industry, innovation and infrastructure, all SDGs acknowledge the importance of actionable strategies to leverage innovative practices in science, technology and entrepreneurship.

Notably, digital technologies provide unprecedented solutions to address the fundamental needs of marginalized groups and those at the bottom of the pyramid. For example, many poor or disadvantaged populations now receive public services because governments can use digital IDs to verify their eligibility. Nearly 900 million Indians have been issued digital IDs in the past five years, which they are using to open bank accounts, vote, and better monitor public funding.

However, history also shows that innovation is not pre-ordained, provide only temporary solutions to development challenges; can create new, unforeseen problems of its own; can be rejected and does not benefits all equally. 

Notably, it seldom benefits women and men equally because of existing structural barriers to gender equality and women’s empowerment. And the failure to achieve innovation at scale can also disproportionality affect women. Conversely, women engagement will often increase the probability of a successful innovation deployment.

Please allow me to take the example of energy access to illustrate these points.

The second industrial revolution was driven by electricity but for the 1.1 billion people worldwide who still lack access to electricity, it could as well have never happened. When electricity is available, women-headed households have disproportionally low rates of grid connections. And this even though it is on the lives of rural women that failure to provide energy access has the greatest impact in terms of drudgery, health, education and curtailed economic options.

Deployment of innovative decentralized renewable energy technologies and business models at scale could address this failure and enable us to achieve universal energy access by 2030, half-a-century ahead of existing trends. The key challenge to leverage the potential of decentralized renewable energy technologies is to acquire and service a decentralized customer base in a cost-effective manner.

Across developing countries, women are typically the primary household energy managers. Close to their customers, women entrepreneurs have the potential to drive innovative decentralized renewable energy business models. They are uniquely placed to identify women’s energy access needs as end-users and entrepreneurs; develop innovative solutions to meet these needs; create distribution and servicing networks in rural areas; lower customer acquisition and servicing costs; and reduce credit repayment risks. Increasing representation of women in the renewable energy sector could both make energy innovation work for women and accelerate efforts to SDGs.

Leveraging women as change agents for innovation is one of the most powerful and underleveraged solutions to deliver ingenuity at scale, break global development trends and achieve the SDGs by 2030. This is fully recognized by G-STIC’s focus on smart technologies rather than high technologies. Smart innovations will be innovations that are affordable, socially acceptable, environmentally sustainable and locally driven and accessible to all.

Making innovation works for Women is a key objective of UN Women. Many barriers create and sustain the gender gap in innovation and technology, including under-representation of women as STEM professionals, innovators and entrepreneurs; perceived high risk/low reward profile of investing in innovations for women and girls; limited awareness of the market potential of gender responsive innovations; lack of dedicated methodologies and tools for gender responsive innovation; and adverse social norms.

Efforts by individual entities to address each barrier separately are unlikely to achieve transformative change. To address these barriers in an integrated manner and build coalitions for change, UN Women launched last September the Global Innovation Coalition for Change (GICC) with leading private sector, academic and not-for-profit institutions

In partnership with several UN agencies, the GICC will release a set of Women Innovation Principles to promote gender responsive innovation next March. The key findings of G-STIC 2017 will prove invaluable for the development of the Women Innovations Principles. We invite all G-STIC members to feed into the GICC consultative process on Women Innovation Principles that will be conducted later this year and make innovation work for women.

Thank you very much for your attention and happy UN 72nd anniversary.