A time for women

February 11 marked the 9th International Day for Women and Girls in Science, and as such it presents us with an important occasion to reflect on how exclusion and gender disparities in scientific fields represent significant risks for all.

A time for women

Representation image

February 11 marked the 9th International Day for Women and Girls in Science, and as such it presents us with an important occasion to reflect on how exclusion and gender disparities in scientific fields represent significant risks for all. What is being lost by not providing full access to women and girls to the jobs and disciplines that create and shape the technologies which define our contemporary society?

On the 75th Republic Day celebration here in New Delhi, a tableau at Kartavya Path highlighted the remarkable women scientists from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) who played key roles in missions like Chandrayaan-3 and Aditya L-1.

These women in science illuminate a path of inspiration for countless young minds, where women not only contribute to, but are leading scientific explorations. And yet the reality is that women in science continue to be hindered, faced with biases, societal pressures, and gender stereotypes. According to UN Women research, although Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields are widely regarded as critical to national economies; so far, most countries, no matter their level of development, have not achieved gender equality in STEM. In 2023, women made up only 28 per cent of the STEM workforce. In the United States, women make up only 24 per cent, 17 per cent in the European Union, 16 per cent in Japan, and 14 per cent in India. In the field of scientific research, the numbers are not much better, and according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2021), only 31.5 per cent of researchers worldwide are women. Women and girls also remain underrepresented across the creation, use, and regulation of technology.


Only 28 per cent of engineering graduates, 22 per cent of artificial intelligence workers, and less than one third of tech sector employees globally are women. And yet the inclusion of women in science is a critical lever for catalyzing global development and innovation. Gender equality in STEM fields is critical for contributing to the achievement of almost all the Sustainable Development Goals. It underpins the realization of a world where scientific and technological advancements benefit everyone, regardless of gender.

More women in the sciences are also essential to ensuring that technology is more gender responsive, and this is strikingly apparent in the field of Artificial Intelligence. A global analysis of 133 AI systems from 1988 to 2023 today found that 44.2 per cent displayed gender biases, with 25.7 per cent exhibiting both gender and racial biases ~ which led to lower service quality, unequal resource distribution and the reinforcement of harmful stereotypes. This can be understood when we see that only 20 per cent of technical roles in major mobile and internet companies, 12 per cent of Artificial Intelligence researchers and a mere 6 per cent of professional software developers are women. Without equitable input of women in the upstream research, design, and data collection that shapes artificial intelligence, it is not surprising to see that AI systems replicate, and often amplify, gender biases.

Recognizing the urgency of this issue, the United Nations has placed gender equality at the heart of its agenda, emphasizing women’s equal access to education, science and technology, and decent work as critical to global economic development and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. UNESCO’s 2022 publication, ‘A Braided River: The Universe of Indian Women in Science’ sets out the key recommendations that can contribute to reaching the goal of gender equality in the sciences in India. Encouragingly, India already has the highest number of STEM women graduates in the world, and has taken several proactive steps to encourage women’s greater participation in STEM fields. To boost women’s participation in STEM, India launched the Pragati Scholarship and TechSaksham Programme, providing financial aid and skill development to female students.

The Pragati Scholarship awards 10,000 scholarships annually for technical education. Additionally, to increase female representation, extra seats were allocated at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), raising female enrolment from 8 per cent in 2018- 2019 to 20 per cent by 2020-2021. Female enrolment in STEM courses also climbed from 38.4 per cent in 2014-2015 to 42.6 per cent in 2021-2022, as per the All India Survey on Higher Education.

The private sector can also play a pivotal role in advancing women’s involvement in STEM. In India, for example, the Micron Foundation is supporting UN Women’s ‘WeSTEM’ programme in India. This collaboration targets empowering 1,000 young women from tribal regions in Madhya Pradesh by enhancing their employability in STEM fields, a crucial step towards gender equality in science and technology. The challenge, however, does not end with getting more women in STEM ~ the bigger challenge is to retain them.

Women are reportedly two-and-a-half times more likely to transition out of a role in technology than other professional positions and half of women who work in technology leave the space completely by the age of 35. Women in tech face challenges like lower pay, fewer promotions, and often, a hostile work environment.

To begin with we must address societal stereotypes that unfairly steer girls away from STEM, creating a cycle that keeps them from these fields. We need to provide universal internet access, fight educational biases, and offer girls strong role models in STEM. We also need targeted programs to keep women updated with new skills for the evolving job market, ensure fair pay, and support them against the burden of unpaid care work. It is not just about fairness; including women in STEM enriches innovation and brings diverse solutions to the table. It is also crucial to enhance access to education and training in emerging fields like Artificial Intelligence for women.

A McKinsey Global Institute report highlights that up to 160 million women worldwide may need to transition between occupations by 2030, necessitating skills that are adaptable, mobile, and tech-savvy. However, women face significant barriers to acquiring these skills, and without targeted support, the wage gap could widen, leaving women far behind. Upskilling offers a route to more productive, higher-paying jobs, but only if we commit to removing obstacles and fostering an inclusive environment that empowers women to thrive in the tech-driven future. On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let us commit to a future where women can thrive to become future STEM leaders, heralding a new wave of change that is inclusive and gender responsive.

The writers are respectively Director of UNESCO New Delhi Regional Office and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka, and the Country Representative to UN Women, India