Gender Advisory Board
United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development

Gender Equity in Science and Technology: Does it Matter?

Geoffrey Oldham
Keynote Presentation, Conference on Gender, Science and Technology, Montevideo, Uruguay, October 26, 2000.

Over the past few years I have been privileged to be associated with two major UN initiatives on gender and science and technology. The first was carried out through the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, and the second was last year's World Conference on Science convened by UNESCO and ICSU. I will draw heavily on the findings and recommendations of these inquiries in this presentation.

The nature of the problem

Although differing in the details, there was a consensus from all regions of the world in both of these studies about the nature of the gender dimension regarding science and technology and about possible solutions. There was agreement on the basic facts:
  1. In many countries, especially in Africa, there are fewer girls than boys that have access to primary education, and of those children that do have access, fewer girls than boys learn about science.
  2. In many countries fewer girls than boys study scientific and technological subjects in either secondary or tertiary education.
  3. In many countries fewer women than men pursue scientific or technological careers, and far fewer reach the top professional, managerial or policy-making positions.
  4. Technological change, especially that designed to improve the quality of life in rural areas in developing countries, has been more directed to the tasks that men perform than to the tasks women perform, both in and outside the household. Development programmes frequently have not taken this gender dimension into account.

Not all countries have the same situation. A few, especially those in Eastern Europe and some in South East Asia, have rough parity between those men and women who obtain professional qualifications in science and engineering and who enter scientific and technical careers. But even in these countries the most senior jobs still go disproportionately to men.

There is some statistical evidence to suggest that the situation is improving, especially with regard to the proportion of female students who study science and engineering in universities. But there is widespread agreement that country comparisons over time are hindered by the paucity of good gender disaggregated statistical data.

Reasons for the problem

There is more divergence of opinion on the reasons for these facts. Some of the divergence is due to the different situations which exist in different countries and regions of the world. They include cultural differences which in some countries serve to discourage girls from studying science in schools or universities, and from pursuing scientific careers. Other reasons frequently advanced are discrimination, career interruptions due to childbirth and family responsibilities, gender stereotyping of science and technology, and the relative lack of women in policy and decision-making positions. It is also recognized that the full gender dimension of science and its impact on society was imperfectly understood and warrants further study and research.

Does it matter?

Does it matter if the above differences between men and women exist? After studying all the evidence my colleagues and I were in no doubt that it did matter and for the following reasons:

  1. Human rights and social justice. All individuals should have equality of opportunity to a science education and to a scientific career, and for women and men to benefit equally from advances in science and technology.
  2. Scientific and economic reasons. If women are not given equal opportunity to become scientists and engineers then a country denies itself its full complement of scientifically creative minds. This can be a serious handicap both to the development of science and to the generation of wealth in an increasingly competitive world.
  3. Social reasons. Women frequently perform different roles and tasks both within and outside the home to those performed by men. It is important that both men and women are able to bring a scientific and technical education to bear on the performance of these roles and tasks.
  4. Reasons of insight. Some women, it has been suggested, bring different insights, values, motivations and methods of work to their scientific jobs than do most men and other women. The inclusion of more women in science will enrich the total pool of talents, insights and motivations, and increase the probability that science will serve the needs of all humanity.

In a few countries in the world there appear to be few major obstacles to women pursuing rewarding careers in science and technology. In most of the world, however, there are major problems.

What can be done to overcome the problems?

Both the UN Commission and UNESCO made many useful suggestions as to what might be done by governments, industry, scientists, and NGOs to move to gender equity in science and technology, and I commend their reports to you. Both organizations however encountered the problem of defining recommendations which would have universal validity when there is so much variation between countries.

The Commission resolved this dilemma by identifying six critical issues where it judged that action should and could be taken in all countries. For each issue it identified a number of transformative actions which provided useful guidelines for action. It then drew up a Declaration of Intent which set out six goals responding to the transformative actions and asked all countries to adopt the Declaration. It also recommended that each country develop its own mechanisms for implementing the Declaration in the context of its own local conditions. In addition, the Commission , with help from UNIFEM, reviewed the activities of the UN system with regard to gender and made a number of recommendations to the UN system ( Review of Policies and Activities of UN Organizations in the Field of Gender, Science and Technology ).

Finally, the Commission recommended the creation of the Gender Advisory Board, the task of which was to review the future work programmes of the Commission from a gender perspective and to monitor the implementation of all of its gender recommendations. The Commission's recommendations were endorsed by the Economic and Social Council of the UN in 1996 and the Gender Advisory Board was created. An early decision of this Board was to initiate the establishment of three regional bodies within the developing world. Their purpose is to help strengthen both national and regional activities in gender and science and technology in their respective regions. Our meeting today is an illustration of the work of the Latin American team and the Latin American Secretariat of Gender, Science and Technology (Secretariado de Género, Ciencia y Tecnología para América Latina - SEGECYT )

The recommendations contained in the World Conference on Science Framework for Action were similar to those from the Commission, but they included one new one. It was observed at the UNESCO meeting that despite the fact there was general agreement on many of the issues, their importance, and steps that might be taken to overcome the problems, relatively little action had been taken in many countries to achieve gender equity. The UNESCO/ICSU Declaration, now adopted by the UNESCO General Assembly, calls for a major campaign to educate policy and decision makers about these issues.

As co-chair of the Gender Advisory Board I am delighted to participate in this meeting and to witness the impact that our Latin American offshoot is already having. I wish you well in your activities. I have come to believe that the attainment of gender equity in science and technology is one of the most important tasks facing all countries in the twenty-first century. I look forward to your discussions and hope that they will lead to action which will ensure that gender equity is attained soon in this part of Latin America.

Finally, I direct your attention to the recommendations of the UN Commission on Science and Technology that were endorsed by ECOSOC.

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