Women in science: a necessity

Although the original title of the panel discussion held at the UN's Palais des Nations had a question mark at the end, no participant was left in any doubt: involving girls in science should be a priority for any educational system, and science cannot be done without women.



The “Women in science – a necessity?” panel discussion was organised by UNESCO, CERN, ITU and the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) and was moderated by CERN’s Manjit Dosanjh, who is also a member of IFUW, the oldest non-governmental organisation fostering gender equality through education.

“There is no question mark, the answer is 'Yes, women are a necessity for science',” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova opening the panel discussion. “I think we all agree we live in a new age of limits – in terms of resources, in terms of the boundaries of the planet. This means we must make far more of the boundless, renewable energy that is human ingenuity. We must release the full powers of innovation to craft new solutions that are inclusive, just and sustainable. This is why gender equality in the sciences is so vital. This is an issue of human rights.” 

The problem of involving young girls in science starts early, often at high-school where there can be a perception that science and technology subjects are more suitable for boys than for girls. The end result is that the number of women working in the top 100 high-tech companies in the world is less than 10%. “The higher you go in education and career level, the worse the situation is for women,” confirmed Monique Morrow, Chief Technology Officer for Asia and Distinguished Consulting Engineer at Cisco Systems. “At Cisco, we have a slogan: the field is cool and geek is chic, but unfortunately this message does not reach enough girls. The same message was echoed by Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Chief of the Strategic Planning and Membership department at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU): “In our 'Bright Future' report, we wrote that the lack of interest in science and technology matters among girls is essentially a consequence of the attitude of parents and teachers. Perception is a real problem: girls do not want to choose a course where they are the only girl. ITU recently teamed up with American actress Geena Davis, who is focussing on building role models for girls. The ITU motto has become: “If she can see it, she can be it”. With these initiatives we would like girls to understand the opportunities that science and technology offer and see that they have a choice. We would like parents to realise that this is a terrific field for girls!”

The importance of involving teachers and the whole education system more closely was reinforced by CERN Director-General, Rolf Heuer, who was also the only man on the panel! “We are increasingly dependent on science and technology but also increasingly ignorant. We need to attract young people and keep them interested,” he said. “There are three 'Es': entice young girls and women to enter science, employ them – and this is a point that we should address through equitable processes– and enable, i.e. create an inclusive work environment that allows everybody to give of their best. And then we should add another two 'Es': excellence and enhancement! Diversity based on excellence is the right approach. And teachers are key in this because they allow us to keep up the momentum over the long term. Governments should continue to invest in education and research even during economic downturns because this is the basis of everything.”

An example of how women can succeed in science even when the context is tough was personified by physicist Francisca Okeke from Nigeria, a winner of the L’Oréal/UNESCO Award for Women in Science. The story of her life and her passion for science enthralled the public.

“I am very happy that the discussion succeeded in engaging not only the panellists but also the audience. I think we achieved the objective, which was to enlighten our thoughts on this topic. All the contributions effectively did it,” commented Manjit Dosanjh at the close of the event.

As CERN’s Diversity Programme Leader Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill correctly pointed out, it was refreshing to note the gender mix in the audience: “It is crucial that we engage our male colleagues as allies in our efforts to recruit and retain women in science. This concerns us all.” Amongst the large audience there were indeed a few men present… It’s a start!

by Antonella Del Rosso