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The Gender Working Group

United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development

In response to the decision of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD) to address the science and technology components of major UN conferences in 1995, the Gender Working Group (GWG) of the UN created a report for UNCSTD to aid in their deliberations of the topic. This report, entitled Science and Technology for Sustainable Human Development: The Gender Dimension, was rooted in background papers commissioned from leading experts (later published by the International Development Research Centre, in a collection entitled Missing Links).

The purpose of these papers was to aid the GWG in diagnosing the ways in which science and technology have differentially affected the lives of men and women in various sectors of their lives. The sectors studied included; the environment, health, agriculture, energy, information, education, employment, small and medium-sized enterprises, and indigenous knowledge systems.

In addition, the GWG report recommended the establishment of a Gender Advisory Board to help UN agencies and national governments implement the recommendations contained in the report and accepted in May 1995 by the UN Economic and Social Council.

The GWG remit was defined by the area of overlap of three domains: science and technology; sustainable human development; and gender. This overlap is an area of human activity which has not been deeply explored in the past. Understanding the essential elements of each of the three domains, and how they overlap, are essential to understanding the common perspectives shared by all members of the GWG, and provides the basis for the diagnosis and prescriptions presented in the report.

The first domain is "science and technology". A distinction was made by the GWG between the development, diffusion and utilization of modern science-based technologies, and local knowledge and traditional technologies which have evolved within communities over many years of trial and error. Both knowledge systems are important for sustainable human development, but the science-based technologies have formed the basis for the industrialization of the more developed countries over the past 100 years. Those developing countries that have invested in their own modern scientific and technical capabilities have been able to join the industrialization process. Several East Asian countries have experienced remarkable economic growth rates over the past 20 years with this strategy.

Developing countries that have not been able to make comparable investments in their own scientific and technical capabilities have not shared these successes, and current globalization trends render these countries increasingly marginalized. There now exists a wide spectrum of developing countries, ranging from those with little capability in science and technology who are all but excluded from the global economy, to those with advanced capabilities and whose economic growth rates are outstripping many of the older developed countries.

It is not only in economic growth and wealth creation that science-based technologies have made substantial contributions; there have also been major transformations in agricultural practices made possible by new technologies. Perhaps most dramatic has been the contribution of modern science to the eradication and amelioration of diseases and improvement in health care worldwide.

The impact of science and technology on society has not been uniformly beneficial. Not all members of society have shared in the benefits, and the development of weapons of mass destruction and growing pollution and environmental degradation demonstrate the reverse side of the coin. So too do the social problems of alienation, unemployment and increased crime, which often seem to follow in the wake of technical change. Technological changes, for good or bad, do not automatically follow from the results of scientific research. They are a consequence of countless decisions made by scientists, engineers, corporations and governments, which collectively govern the impact of science and technology on all of our lives. It must be an objective of science and technology policy to maximize the benefits to be derived from science and technology, and to minimize its harmful effects, for all members of society. This objective underlies the GWG approach to examining the gender dimension of science and technology.

The second domain of analysis is that of "sustainable human development". This is the dimension of development that emphasizes people rather than economic growth per se. It seeks to improve the quality of life of all people today without harming the prospects of future generations. It is a concept that has been elaborated at length by UNDP in successive Human Development reports and is the type of development to which the GWG subscribes.

"Sustainable human development should join sustainable development and human development everyday, in practice, on the ground around the world. It is development that does not merely generate growth, but distributes its benefits equitable; it regenerates the environment rather than destroying it; it empowers people rather than marginalizing them; it enlarges their choices and opportunities and provides for peoples' participation in decisions affecting their lives. Sustainable human development is development pro-poor, pro-nature, pro-jobs, and pro-women. It stresses growth with employment, growth with environment, growth with empowerment, growth with equity."

The third domain is that of "gender". The GWG accepted the conclusions of previous studies that had demonstrated that development itself is gender specific. Gender refers to the distinct roles that men and women are assigned in any society. As a result, women and men assume distinct socially and culturally defined responsibilities and tasks both within the household and in the wider community. The knowledge and experience gained from undertaking these tasks, as well as their requirements, lead women and men to have different needs and aspirations. This concept of gender differentiation underpins the conviction that "science and technology for development" must systematically and purposefully recognize the gender specific nature of development and respond to the concerns, needs and aspirations of both women and men appropriately and equitably.

Not only is development itself gender specific, but all studies point to the fact that women are among the poorest of the poor, and are notably disadvantaged. In the words of the 1993 UNDP Human Development Report:
"In industrialized countries, gender discrimination is mainly in employment and wages, with women often getting less than two-thirds of the employment opportunities and about one-half of the earnings of men. In developing countries the great disparities, besides those in the job market, are in health care, nutritional support and education. For instance, women make up two-thirds of the illiterate population. South and East Asia, defying the normal biological result that women live longer than men, have more men than women. The reasons: high maternal mortality and infanticide and the nutritional neglect of the girl child."

Within the area defined by the overlap of these three domains, the GWG was required to:
  • make science and technology policy recommendations to national governments
  • to review the performance of the United Nations system and to suggest improvement
  • to provide advice to "other relevant organizations".
In fulfilling its mandate, the GWG was hindered by the paucity of available data. The data that do exist strongly suggest that within the area of concern, women are more disadvantaged than men. However, more attention must be paid in the future to the collection of data both on "participation rates of women" in science and related decision-making bodies and on the "differential impact of technical change" on the lives of men and women. On this latter point, there is substantially more data available on the impact of science and technology on the lives of poor women than on the lives of poor men.

Particular attention was paid to the gender dimension of science and technology for basic needs in developing countries. It was hoped that this approach would complement the recommendations of the Basic Needs Working Group of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development. It became apparent, however, that the fundamental issues were germane to all countries. They differed between countries often only in context, scale, and scope. Thus, although the primary focus of this report is on transformative actions for developing countries, it ends with a challenge to all governments to sign a "Declaration of Intent" regarding a set of goals that should underlie every country's approach to gender and science and technology for development.

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