International Day of Women and Girls in Science

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International Day of Women and Girls in Science

International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2019 Women as part of a sustainable future

This post is a week late, but life has been busy. Anyway, this topic is such an important one that I’ve decided it’s better late than never.

The UN has designated 11 February of every year as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

As a career science has a significant gender imbalance with women representing around 22% of the scientific workforce globally in 2019.

The theme for this year is “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth”. I’ll come back to this a little later in the post but first, I think that there is an important question to be asked and answered:

Why is equal gender representation in science important?

A lot of people take for granted that women and men have the same level of intellect and therefore should be evenly represented in professional fields. This is certainly a good starting point, but the importance of gender equality in the sciences (and other STEM fields) goes beyond the notion of gender equality. In fact, the lack of female representation in scientific research and development leads to outcomes that are skewed in favour of males.

Consider the fact that women are more likely to die from heart attacks than men. There are a variety of reasons but major factors include - misdiagnosis and poor follow up care. Women are routinely not being given the correct medication and procedures that are prescribed for both genders where a major heart attack has occurred. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that fewer than 20% of cardiologists in Australia and the USA are female.

A less serious but equally telling example is a recent development by Fitbit (a wearable fitness tracking device and app). Their recently developed menstrual tracking feature on their watches consisted of a 10-day cycle limit. Sure, MOST women menstruate for less than 10 days a month. But that isn’t always the case.

The head of diversity and inclusion at the Institute of Engineering and Technology, Jo Foster spoke on this to the BBC: "I don't know how many women were involved in designing this, but it links back to the fact that we need more women involved in the design process."

Child in a seatbelt

The 1959 invention of the seatbelt would have been improved with input from women, who at the time were usually the primary carers for children.

My final example of a STEM endeavour that would have would have been immeasurably improved by the inclusion of women in the design process was the creation of the seatbelt.

When it was developed in 1959 only men were involved in the design process. Seatbelts were made for men, by men and tested on – you guessed it – men!  

The design was poorly suited for women (who typically had smaller frames and were shorter than men) and children. There were a significant number of deaths that were very likely preventable if only there has been women involved in the initial process.

Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth

How will be able to solve today’s issues when the gender gap in these key workplaces remains so wide?

Take the prevailing issue of climate change as well as the development of new technology as examples; they will continue to be fought and produced with a predominantly male perspective and this is a real threat to progress.

No one understands the needs of women better than other women.

Directly relating to this year’s theme: Women and girls’ roles in ‘Green Growth’, is the issue that women are most profoundly affected by concerns caused by climate change. An article from the United Nations states that:

“Women commonly face higher risks and greater burdens from the impacts of climate change in situations of poverty, and the majority of the world’s poor are women.”

Women, particularly those in poorer nations, are at the centre of communities. They are the ones capable of influencing and changing household practices that affect climate change and are also aware of impacts of climate change on their communities.

Solutions to concerns relating to climate change can be accelerated by increasing the proportion of women working in STEM and applying their expertise with a perspective that differs from that of their male colleagues.

Veena Sahajwalla is an extraordinary example of a woman who has made incredible progress in green developments.

An inventor and Professor of Materials Science at UNSW, Ms Sahajwalla has developed a technology called ‘Green steel’. It involves recycling old tyres to manufacture steel. The project thus far, has reused over two million tyres! This huge sustainability success in light of the fact that tyres are considered an “end of life” product and have previously not been able to be recycled. These 2 million tyres would have gone to landfill but for the development of green steel.

Ms Sahajwalla’s success should stand as a reminder of the vitality of women in STEM that needs to be celebrated and further encouraged to ensure the best possible outcomes for everyone on the planet.

Old tyres end up in landfill

Old Tyres have previously been destined for landfill as the materials could not be recycled.

The even better news is that Veena Sahajwalla’s commitment to science and technology is only increasing. Sahajwalla has since developed the world’s first e-waste micro factory where end of life products are repurposed to avoid adding to landfill.

The first step to increase the number of women like Sahajwalla excelling in STEM fields is to consciously avoid the idea that mathematics and science are exclusive to men. Let’s teach our kids that science is for everyone so that someday soon, the gender gap won’t be so wide and our girls feel although they have every opportunity our boys do.

With many thanks to year 12 student Elizabeth Chapman who co-wrote this post with me.

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