Observed on February 11 every year, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science honors the contributions women and girls make to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The day also serves to raise awareness of the gender gap that persists within the area and aims to motivate more women and girls to pursue their interests and career in STEM while encouraging greater inclusiveness in opportunities for education and scientific participation.
Themed “IDEA”, the 8th International Day of Women and Girls in Science, calls for women in science and various stakeholders to Innovate, Demonstrate, Elevate, Advance to bring communities forward for sustainable and equitable development.
The concept for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science was first put forth at the World Women’s Health and Development Forum, organized by the Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT) and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) in 2015. The plan was built upon the notion that achieving gender equality and ensuring full and equal involvement of women and girls in STEM fields are necessary for sustainable development and realizing the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. The United Nations General Assembly officially proclaimed it in December of the same year.
The Struggles of Women and Girls in Science
Since the 18th and 19th centuries, society has raised girls to be housewives, mothers, and “women.” If allowed to work, they would accept low-skilled jobs instead of choosing to be scientists, mathematicians, or engineers. From a broader perspective, the underrepresentation and struggles of women in STEM reflect the historical and socio-political marginalization of women.
Girls are socialized from a young age to behave in ways that discourage participation in science, compared to boys. In their account of a model program for gifted girls in science, Rand & Gibb found that parental beliefs, lack of role models, classroom dynamics, and (girls’) personal choices affect the number of girls in science classes (1989).
Parents rarely expose their girls to the enjoyment of science-related activities; they even frown on girls playing with “boys’ toys,” like construction toys and toolkits. In school, stereotyping occurs when boys get to answer more questions and use scientific equipment more than girls. Within the social environment, there is usually a lack of role models to inspire the girls, so science becomes “unnatural” to them. And even if they choose to go into science, they would pick topics requiring less equipment use. (Rand & Gibb, 1989)
Dual Marginalization in Gifted Black Girls
And this difference is even more pronounced for black girls, as they face dual marginalization in both race and gender. Even as the number of women in science increases, the percentage of black girls and women continues to be disproportionately low. Collins et al. noted that this dual marginalization (of race and gender) caused black girls to lose confidence in their abilities to be a woman in science. Due to their lack of exposure, and other hindering factors, they cannot develop their STEM talent. Furthermore, stereotypical treatment in a mainly white male-dominated environment discourages a sense of belonging. (2019)
The Gender Gap in STEM
Even for women already in science, gender equality is not a given. Women represent 33.3% of all researchers, but only 12% are members of national science academies. Their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals. When it comes to finances, they are given smaller research grants and are less well-paid in their careers. Often, management passes women over for promotion. (United Nations, n.d.)
“It is time to expand the definition of Gender Equality in Science. It is time to recognize WOMEN & GIRLS in SCIENCE for Sustainable Development by 2030 and beyond.”United Nations HQ
Women Scientists for Women and Girls in Science
Even as history and the socio-political environment are not the most supportive towards women and girls in science, female scientists continue to work hard and push through the struggles to make the world a better place. Here are some inspiring female scientists who have changed the world with their passion for science and love for humanity.
HRH Dr. Nisreen El-Hashimite
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science could not have come into being without the successful lobbying by HRH Dr. Nisreen El-Hashimite. Widely known as “The Science Princess,” she is the first Royal Princess in the world with qualifications in science and medicine. The Iraqi Princess defied traditions and societal expectations to study medicine and made her mark in genetic science, keeping a promise to a young patient to help girls like her (with a rare blood disorder). With her passion and experience, Dr. Nisreen advocates for more women in science and medicine, championing equitable pay and gender equality. Currently, she serves as the Executive Director of the Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT), an NGO that collaborates with UN Women in the region of Europe and Central Asia, and is the Founder and President of the Women in Science International League.
Dr. Fei Fei Li
Standing on the leading edge of technology, Dr. Fei Fei Li, an inaugural Sequoia Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University and Co-Director of Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute, is the inventor of ImageNet. It revolutionized the field of artificial intelligence by enabling computers to recognize images. Dr. Li’s work has significantly impacted the development of AI, and she works to make AI better for humanity. Her research has helped advance this field in exciting new ways, and Dr. Li continues to shape the future of AI, especially in deep learning and AI+healthcare. Along with her technical accomplishments, she is a leading voice advocating for diversity in STEM and AI fields. She is a co-founder and chairwoman of the national nonprofit organization AI4ALL, which promotes inclusion and diversity in artificial intelligence education.
Dr. Donna Strickland
With a penchant for “playing with lasers ‘, Dr. Donna Strickland was one of three women in the entire cohort of students pursuing a bachelor of engineering degree in physics in 1981. Fast forward to today, her time in research as a “laser jock” has won her the 2018 Physics Nobel Prize for discovering ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses without destroying the amplifying material – Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA). Her research has helped to create tools for various fields, like industrial machining, medical imaging, and corrective eye surgeries.; it is essential for the majority of high-powered laser facilities. She is currently a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo, where she worked to bring more women into her department. Dr. Strickland’s journey and achievements inspire women and girls to follow their interests in science and technology.
Intrigued by fundamental physics in secondary school, Cohl Furey went on to study Mathematical Physics, “a beautiful subject which gets better and better the further you go.” Her deep appreciation for the elegance of numbers in physics and her indomitable spirit led her to discover octonions – an analog of complex numbers that works in eight dimensions. It has brought significant progress toward resolving some truly complex puzzles in physics, in fields like string theory, special relativity, and quantum logic. Cohl Furey is currently a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and a part of the high-energy physics research group in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Her pioneering work highlights the valuable contributions that women can make to science and math, motivating more women and girls to chase their dreams.
Making a Difference to Women and Girls in Science
While there are more women and girls in science today, they still face issues related to gender. There is still much work to be done to bridge the gender gap. Commemorations like the International Day of Women and Girls in Science not only recognize women and girls as vital contributors to the fields of STEM, but it is also a call to countries and communities to build a more inclusive society where people of all genders have fair opportunities to work in STEM.
We can start by helping girls identify with STEM identities, as opposed to only housewife, mother, and “woman,” and we can work to foster their interests by allowing and encouraging exploration and participation (Collins et al., 2019).
- Allow them to gain experience by solving problems with various solutions. Encourage independence and help them experience success in science.
- Help girls develop confidence in their abilities and encourage them to trust their judgment instead of seeking constant approval from others.
- Develop girls’ competency in using tools and equipment by allowing them to use them.
- Introduce female role models and share their stories to inspire young girls to pursue their dreams.
On the corporate front, companies and organizations can provide a safe and supportive space for female scientists to thrive when they make Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion a part of their company values and culture.
“We can all do our part to unleash our world’s enormous untapped talent – starting with filling classrooms, laboratories, and boardrooms with women scientists.”UN Secretary-General António Guterres
SAGE Publishing believes that diversity is the cornerstone of a vibrant culture. We are honored to work with amazing and inspiring women of science to bring fair and grounded knowledge to support an equitable society.
Collins, K. H., Joseph, N. M., & Ford, D. Y. (2019). Missing in Action: Gifted Black Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Gifted Child Today, 43(1), 55–63. https://doi.org/10.1177/1076217519880593
United Nations. (n.d.). International Day of Women and Girls in Science. https://www.un.org/en/observances/women-and-girls-in-science-day
In the words of HRH Dr. Nisreen El-Hashemite: “We need to encourage girls and young women to pursue science and stay in science careers”. (2018, February 7). UN Women Europe and Central Asia. https://eca.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2018/02/in-the-words-of-dr-nisreen-el-hashemite