Equal participation of women and girls in the fields of science is a critical right and a means by which women can achieve their aspirations in life. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is founded on the principle of leaving no one behind, including women and girls who continue to be systematically under-represented both as users and as leaders in the science, technology and innovation space. The current trajectory will not get us the world we want.
Change carries high rewards: first and foremost, women will have the capability to make equal life and career choices in these fields. This engagement carries benefits for everyone. Estimates are that GDP across 144 developing countries would be boosted by up to US$13-18 billion, if 600 million women and girls go online in the next three years.
The job market is changing rapidly and a new wave of innovations is expected to transform lives in areas such as robotics, transport, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and genomics. Jobs that do not exist today will be common within the next 20 years. That means that the future workforce will need to develop and align their skill sets to correspond to these job market needs.
Yet, in tertiary education globally, women are underrepresented in computing, engineering and physics, with levels below 30 per cent in most countries. Consequently, fewer than one third of jobs in the tech sector are currently held by women. Engineering roles comprise only about half of those jobs. As women work their way up the career ladder, this gender gap widens.
Freedom and equality are often contingent on intersectional factors like income, geography, gender, income, age and race. These factors can also affect access to technology. In developing countries women are nearly 25 per cent less likely to be online than men and 200 million fewer women than men have access to mobile phones. In several of Africa’s poorer and more fragile countries, only one person in 10 is an internet user. To ensure women and girls have access, a host of issues must be resolved, including cost, network coverage, security and harassment, harmful social norms and stereotypes around science being a “masculine” field, and the use of technology by women and girls.
UNESCO estimated that 2.5 million new engineers and technicians would be needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone to achieve improved access to clean water and sanitation during the pre-SDG era.
Science and technology offer unique opportunities for women and girls to overcome a number of the barriers they typically face. For example: mobile money has empowered and transformed the lives of millions of women previously thought to be “unbankable”, by enabling them to directly access financial products and services. Women with Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) skills can help improve vital infrastructure such as water and power supply, and in doing so ease the responsibilities that women and girls carry of providing unpaid care work for the household. Similarly, internet and mobile technology can help bridge barriers to education for the 32 million girls who are out of school at the primary level and the 29 million at the lower secondary level.
Closing the gender digital divide is one of the most important ways we have to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for all. Together, on this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we can work together to create a world where women and girls design, shape and benefit from the technological transformations changing our world.