Speech: “We must ensure that women’s participation in innovation is not the exception, but becomes the norm”—Lakshmi Puri

Remarks by Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women at the official UN commemoration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February


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Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to once again participate in the marking of this important day in the calendar to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

First and foremost, I have the privilege of relaying the message of United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Antonio Guterres on this occasion.

“For too long, discriminatory stereotypes have prevented women and girls from having equal access to education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As a trained engineer and former teacher, I know that these stereotypes are flat wrong. They deny women and girls the chance to realize their potential—and deprive the world of the ingenuity and innovation of half the population. On this International Day, I urge commitment to end bias, greater investments in STEM education for all women and girls as well as opportunities for their careers and longer-term professional advancement so that all can benefit from their ground-breaking future contributions.”

After that powerful call to the international community to make groundbreaking commitment, let me give a few messages on behalf of UN Women.

I want to put this cause of women and girls in STEM / science, technology and innovation in perspective.

  1. Full and equal access to, participation and leadership of women in science technology and innovation for women and girls of all ages has been recognized as an imperative for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Equally women's and girls’ STEM participation is seen as a key contributor to filling the larger STEM human resource deficit.
  2. The STEM gender gap continues to be wide despite years of recognizing women’s and girls’ participation in it as a human right, the existence of the gap as a demonstrative area of inequality and the international Community vowing to do something decisive about it including through the CSW-55 Agreed Conclusions of 2011 and the 2015 UN General Assembly resolution on the theme.
  3. Gaps remain wide and persistent in science, technology, engineering and math fields at graduate, postgraduate, doctorate levels (18, 8 and 2 per cent in a 14 country study) as well as professional scientists, engineers, and mathematicians and STEM teachers, researchers and inventors. This is so not only in developing countries but also in developed countries.
  4. Typically, it is a reflection of two major gender gaps—the education gap specially secondary and tertiary education, the training and skills development gap that still persists in most countries as well as the decent work and productive employment gap.

But going beyond both is the myth and gender stereotype that's been built of the STEM field as a masculine one requiring the kind of intellectual ability, stamina, creativity, hard work and tenacity—attributes that women and girls are falsely seen not to inherently possess nor capable of acquiring.

Then there is the usual issue of the women in STEM careers either being deterred by or dropping out due to care responsibilities they have to disproportionately bear and combine with punishing schedules and demands of STEM careers. The patriarchal environment of STEM is not always inviting nor nurturing for them either.

  1. The fifth issue is the vicious cycle of there not being enough women in STEM as role models to inspire and embolden others to join, finish education and training and rise in STEM careers and be visible leaders and award winners not "hidden figures"—as is often said the problem of not enough women in STEM is that there are not enough women in STEM!

So what we need to do to create and foster an ecosystem that nourishes the interest, talent and intellectual capital of girls and women in STEM education, training and careers is to address these structural barriers and gaps?

The STEP it up for gender equality and the empowerment of women – Step it up for Planet 50-50 through STEM Plan requires:

  • Step it up in data, knowledge, advocacy and movement building to demolish the myth of female incapacity and inferiority in STEM to build and sustain girls’ and women's interest in and confidence about their inner spark to take on the challenge of STEM education and careers.

Inculcate a STEM culture in a gender neutral way but with special appeal to women and girls from early childhood to adulthood, from homes, schools, universities and labs to tech ventures. Making it cool and making it second nature for them to embrace as a hobby, as a passion, as an academic pursuit, as a profession, as a profitable enterprise. Recognition and awards from the start energizes the female STEM flocks.

  • Step it up to train and develop skills in incubators, Research and Data labs and rebooting through the life and career cycles. 
  • Step it up to educate and organize - access to and encouragement for girls and women to go for STEM education stream through special measures, incentives and scholarships etc. is critical. Fostering STEM women's organizations and professional bodies would generate a positive momentum.
  • Step it up to mentor—it's important that both women and men STEM leaders mentor girls and women in all stages on their path to participation and leadership in STEM education and careers.
  • Step it up to transform the patriarchal spaces and culture of work of STEM institutions and businesses and make them more responsive to and accommodative of women's participation and leadership—again through special measures—flexible working hours, childcare, parental leave, shorter work hours, incentives, motivational leadership and management, etc.
  • Step it up with significant investments to recruit, retain and promote STEM women to generate a critical mass so it creates its own snowballing effect towards parity democracy in STEM.

Finally let us not forget that the resolution declaring the international day was adopted in 2015 around the time of three epic intergovernmental normative commitments and processes. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its emphasis on science, technology and innovation as a critical enabler of the three dimensions of sustainable development: Economic growth, social development and environment sustainability.

Women's empowerment though STEM is a vital enabler and beneficiary of these three aspects of Sustainable development. In terms of economic growth 144 developing countries would increase their GDP by 8 trillion if 600 million women and girls have access to ICT; more women in STEM would move the needle to more sustainable consumption and production patterns and environmental sustainability. STEM gender parity would contribute to greater social capital, equality and empowerment and enable women to be part of and benefit from the technology driven jobs revolution underway in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and to leaving no one behind.

The historic Gender Equality Compact of Beijing+20, the Climate Change Agreement, New Urban Agenda and SDG 5 itself on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls and puts gender equality in conjunction with STEM and calls for enhancing the use of enabling technology in particular ICT to promote the empowerment of women, the World Summit on Information Society, plus 10 commitments to gender equality and women's empowerment to drive the various action areas of the ICT Compact.

And now in the CSW 61 we will be looking to adopt a global plan of implementation on :Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work” and it will very much reflect how STEM developments are changing the world of work and how gender equality can and should be ensured and achieved though women's equal and full participation and leadership in this labour market transformation and in the creation and securing of ‘new collar’ jobs.

On this day we need to pledge to live up these commitments and translate them into results and impact at all levels: Global, regional, national and local involving all stakeholders: Educational institutions, private sector and governments, scientific and professional bodies.

UN Women stands ready to continue to work in this area at all levels with relevant partners to advance this agenda. Together, we most galvanize the global community to ensure full accountability to advance women in science, technology and innovation for achieving gender equality and all other development goals. Together, we must ensure that women’s participation in innovation is not the exception, but becomes the norm of life and work!

Thank you!