OPINION: Women can spacewalk. But can they cross the gender line?

Friday, 8 November 2019 15:07 GMT

NASA astronaut Anne McClain is seen during a spacewalk at the International Space Station in this social media photo on March 22, 2019. Picture taken on March 22, 2019. Courtesy NASA/Handout via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Biases build powerful barriers to women’s advancement over the course of a lifetime for which both the world, and the women in it, pay a steep price

Mirjana Spoljaric Egger is director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s bureau for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

All nine recently announced 2019 Nobel science laureates were male, despite a significant and growing cohort of female contenders.

Nor is women’s contribution to science a recent phenomenon.

Ada Lovelace devised the world’s first computer program in 1840. Austrian physicist Lise Meitner led a small group of scientists who discovered nuclear fission. Soviet cosmonaut and engineer Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in outer space in 1963.

Yet women remain vastly and globally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), comprising only 28 percent of scientific researchers in the world.

Longstanding occupational stereotypes and social norms play a huge role. Why else would we still believe that men are hard-wired to handle machines and numbers, while women are naturally predisposed for careers in education, psychology, and the social sciences?

Such biases build powerful barriers to women’s advancement over the course of a lifetime—for which both the world, and the women in it, pay a steep price.

While more women are graduating with science doctorates, they too frequently encounter glass ceilings and too often find jobs only in the public sector, which offers better work-life balance but fewer career opportunities than the business world.

In principle, men and women should have the same opportunities in any profession; in numbers, advancing gender equality in high-value private sectors could also add trillions of dollars to global economic output.

If the current situation seems dire, could the Fourth Industrial Revolution bring about a reversal of fortune? The answer isn’t entirely clear and may vary according to skill level, age group, and location.

Artificial Intelligence and automation have long promised to relieve women of many domestic chores, which social norms around the world disproportionately assign to girls and women and which rob many female workers of opportunities available to men.

Some research also suggests that lower-paying or non-paying “caring” roles—historically assigned to women—may be impacted relatively less by automation. At the same time, the IMF has found that 180 million predominantly “female” jobs actually have a 70 percent or higher probability of automation.

What’s abundantly clear, and undisputed, is that the number of women leaders and experts in the world’s fastest-growing industries remains shockingly small. At the very least, women will have to achieve a giant leap forward in compensation, career progression, and leadership opportunities to reach parity.

On STEM Day, let’s remember we have a huge opportunity to close the gender gap in science and technology by 2030, the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Representatives of UN Member States, multilateral organizations, and other entities have begun to review this issue extensively ahead of the 25th anniversary of a landmark gender conference held in Beijing.

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the region for which I am responsible at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), many countries have higher than average proportions of women in science, having belonged to or aligned with the former Soviet Union, which pro-actively trained female scientists. 

That legacy endures. For instance, women now make up 48 percent of STEM professions in Central Asia and the majority of researchers in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia.

While solutions may differ from one region to the next, three actions could help move the needle in the right direction:

First, by capturing girls’ and young women’s imaginations, ensuring they graduate in fields in which their skills may be in high demand. Surely, culture and family come into play when it comes to choosing one’s profession. Smart policy can also play a key role in ensuring equal access to finance and connectivity, as exemplified by Nordic and Baltic countries. Incentives are key.

Led by UNDP and the Limak Foundation, an initiative called “Engineer Girls of Turkey” is helping provide scholarships, internships, and mentoring to hundreds of young women across the country. Similar programs have now been launched across the region, including in Uzbekistan, North Macedonia, and Moldova.

Second, by fixing the shortage of affordable daycare services, introducing parental and family leave programmes, and creating financial incentives for men to share the burden of delivering domestic and care work. 

UNDP and other agencies are working with local development initiatives to unlock private finance for infrastructure projects that lift women's disproportionate burden of unpaid work.

Third, by offering targeted training programs so women can update their skills in rapidly changing fields and professions and achieve leadership positions in science and tech. Making sure women are in the driver’s seat is the best way to correct gender imbalances from within the industry.

Last month, NASA conducted its first all-woman spacewalk in a symbolic milestone for humanity. I look forward to the day when such events are no longer newsworthy.