Today is the Day the UN Celebrates Women and Girls in Science. Here’s Why That’s So Important

Think on this: What happens to the typical man with a PhD in science after his wife has their first child? Are his opportunities affected by the status of his home life or gender?

Now this: What happens to the typical woman with a PhD in science after she has her first child? Or her second? How do her (mostly male) peers react? Is she allowed extended maternity leave? Flex time? Breast-pumping breaks and days off for comforting sick kids? Is she considered equally in applications for higher-paying jobs and promotions? What if she takes a year or two off—is the gap on her resume counted as experience, or a strike against her? If she applies for a research grant, will she get it?

Today, February 11, is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This is the first such commemorative day dedicated to asking these questions and coming up with solutions to a problem that affects communities from the wealthiest, most urbane settings to the poorest corners of the globe.

In place after place, women and girls are lagging behind their male counterparts in the sciences. A quick look at the stats shows why the international community so urgently needs to do a better job of  promoting women in science.

A Global Problem

Worldwide, women account for just 28 percent of all researchers. Even though enrollment numbers are up and more women are studying science, they’re not matching their male counterparts with PhDs and jobs with critical decision-making clout. And we cannot assume the status quo will gradually change over time as more of those women graduate with degrees in science, technology and engineering. “Gaps and barriers persist throughout the scientific research system,” notes a flagship UNESCO science report on this issue titled, Towards 2030.

Even in Europe and the United States, the numbers of women in positions of “leadership and prestige” remain stagnant despite a decade-long push for change. “Each step up the ladder of the scientific research system sees a drop in female participation until, at the highest echelons of scientific research and decision-making, there are very few women left,” the report says. Reasons cited include a host of cultural phenomena: the maternal wall or glass ceiling, lack of recognition and support for women in leadership, and bias—both conscious and subconscious.

The latter is particularly pernicious and difficult to change. “Science remains one of the few sectors where gender bias is common and considered acceptable by some,” according to UNESCO. There is a persistent underlying belief that women simply cannot do science as well as men—or that they are overly emotional and distracting to men.

When women are missing from classrooms and research labs, they are less likely to be invited to research councils, think tanks, and the editorial boards of scholarly journals. They will not move up to political forums and roundtables of global policymaking.

women in science logo

The UN decided to set aside one day—Feb. 11—each year to promote women in science because it is critical to the future of humanity, and this planet. This is not just about do-good, feel-good morality goals; it’s about health and prosperity, life and death. In countries where women and girls are denied education, child and maternal death rates are higher. But when women are educated and included in decision-making circles—in the family, the village, the country—economies grow and mortality rates decline.

Take, for example, climate change. As a whole, women suffer the effects of climate change more than men. “Since men tend to enjoy a higher socio-economic status, women are disproportionately affected by droughts, floods and other extreme weather events and marginalized when it comes to making decisions on recovery and adaptation,” according to UNESCO. Yet not nearly as many women as men work in scientific fields involving climate change adaptation strategies. Not nearly as many women as men have decision-making powers—at home or in the community—to determine the best strategies for family and cultural survival. Participants at last December’s COP21 talks in Paris noted a striking gender imbalance, “detrimental to taking action to save people from the ravages of climate change.”

Think, for a moment, about daily life in a traditionally patriarchal society. Let’s say you’re a girl in a remote village, somewhere up a mountain in Timor-Leste. You quit school at third or fourth grade because your mother needs your help in the kitchen and field. You marry young, leave your parents, and move into your husband’s home. His family pays a bride price for you, and by your culture’s standards, you essentially belong to him. You are “not independent to speak,” says Rosaria Martins da Cruz, director of HIAM Health, an NGO that fights malnutrition among mothers and kids. Your husband doesn’t want you to get a job, so you don’t. You have no income of your own. You spend your days in the confines of your hut and your land—caring for kids, tending livestock, weeding the garden. As a rural woman, you are “always in the home to look after the baby, cooking for the man, clean the house, do everything for the man and the kids,” da Cruz says.

Now let’s say it’s an El Niño year (like this one). The rains are late, and drought is expected. Your crops are dying, and people say it’s going to get worse with climate change. You’ve spent the money from last year’s harvest. There is only a little rice to eat, with a few chiles and greens. You feed your husband first. You feed your baby a mush of bland white rice, nothing else. You eat the last dregs yourself, after the others have finished—because that’s tradition, that’s your place in the family. You know it’s not enough nourishment for any of you. You know you’re all getting weaker. You go to church, you pray for rain. When it doesn’t come, sickness does. The neighbor’s baby dies. Then the old woman up the road does, too. You attend each funeral, and go to bed wishing you had the knowledge to make things better, wishing you knew where to begin. The next morning, you wake before dawn to fetch the water, you light the fire, and your daily routine repeats.

This is what it’s like for millions of rural women worldwide who are neither asked nor granted the opportunity to study, to leave the village, to learn and then return to make things better. When women are excluded from education and the pursuit of dreams, their communities are denied 50 percent of all opportunity to innovate and grow. For many women around the globe, their gender presents a double burden: they are born into the lowest rungs of society, and their culture keeps them there with little chance to advance.

This is something we all must work to change, in our homes and our communities—from Timor-Leste to the United States and beyond. We need Feb. 11 as a start to promote women and girls in science. But even more, we need women and girls in science every day, all year long.

Reporting from Timor-Leste was supported by a fellowship through the International Reporting Project.