Features, Insight, Opinion

What can we learn about women’s participation in sustainable development goals?

By Rula Sharqi, Assistant Professor, School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai


This year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science aims to bridge the gap between women’s representation in STEM fields and their participation in sustainable development goals. Recent data by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a non-profit organisation that advances equity for women and girls through education, suggests that the gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, like computer science and engineering. In the MENA region, despite having the highest proportions of female graduates in STEM fields like engineering, this does not translate to women’s representation in the workforce.

Why is women’s involvement in SDGs important?

The steps we take today to advance women’s representation in future jobs will determine the role of women and girls in SDGs. Most importantly, this will feed in efforts to reduce female poverty, which requires involving society at large. SDGs include eradicating poverty by 2030, which is especially relevant for women given that findings by the UN Women show that female poverty rates are higher than male poverty rates in at least one poverty threshold. Globally, 1 in 5 girls are in households living on less than US$1.90 a day, a sum that leaves them without enough food, housing, health care or education. Additionally, with the unequal burden of childcare and other dependents, women struggle to combine paid work with their responsibilities. Therefore, ending poverty can only be achieved by ending the discrimination and unequal access to economic resources that trap women in poverty.

What is the role of higher education in ensuring equal representation of women in STEM?

Therefore, to enhance women’s roles in SDGs, the key is to ensure their representation in STEM fields. According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), women are underrepresented in leadership in STEM fields. In technology women comprise about 24% of leadership roles and in infrastructure it is as low as 16%. This endangers perpetuating the gender gap in future jobs. Moreover, the tech industry and industries that require STEM expertise are projected to foster the fastest growth and highest paid jobs of the future.

Studies by multiple sources including UN Women and WEF indicate that focusing on accessibility to education is not enough. Factors including a lack of role models, cultural factors and gender stereotypes held by families or within one’s social environment contribute to a reduced number of women gaining a STEM education or work. As such, it is important to focus on external factors beyond students themselves to be able to really help them.

STEM Education Programmes for Women

In that sense, programmes that do not only aim to support girls to obtain STEM education, but that also focus on tackling bias and removing stigma surrounding women in STEM are essential. For example, Global Engineer Girls programme, a recently launched global project, focuses on empowering girls and young women to undertake degrees in STEM through career mentoring and campaigning against gender bias. Such projects are invaluable as they recognise that accessibility to education alone is not enough, as structural discrimination often impedes women’s career advancement despite being highly qualified.

Leveraging digital education to cater to working mothers:

Findings from Coursera’s recent Women and Skills Report signal an increase in enrolment in STEM courses among UAE women between 2019 and 2021 because of online learning. As part of Heriot-Watt University’s recognition of the importance of accessibility to education, the University launched a global online education initiative called Heriot-Watt Online designed to open higher education opportunities to non-traditional students around the world. Such initiatives are rolled out to cater to the diversity of learners’ profiles. Among this demographic of learners, working mothers greatly benefit from this flexibility as they can still enrol in university despite their geographic location and work times.

Facilitating women’s career advancement in research

Global statistics by the UN have shown that women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women. Additionally, female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers and their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals. This also gets exacerbated by intersection with race, ethnicity, and disability. Response to gender discrimination in research can take the form of initiatives that can improve women’s contribution to research and development. For example, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Young Talents MENA Awards L’Oreal-UNESCO was held this year at EXPO 2020 Dubai. It recognized the achievements of 14 Arab female scientists from the Middle East and North Africa region, two of whom were from the UAE. They were celebrated for their ground-breaking research and fascinating discoveries in photonics and organ transplants.

Breaking the biases impeding women’s career advanced in STEM is more pressing than ever. Not only is it essential for advancing SDGs but to ensure that careers of the future do not perpetuate the gender biases and restrict women’s accessibility further.

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