11 February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. We asked our two interns on work experience at SRHM, studying Global Health at the University of Aberdeen, about their experiences as women involved in the research and practice of global health and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
As we commemorate the fourth International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it is with great honour that we recognise the advancement and achievement of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). (#IAdmireMaeJemison) While there has been a great effort in encouraging girls and women to join the STEM field, there is unfortunately still a gap amongst the number of men and women. According to a study conducted in 14 countries, the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and Doctor’s degree in the science-related field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%. It is important that we acknowledge this gap as science and gender equality go hand in hand and play a crucial part in reaching the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
As a current postgraduate student pursuing an MSc. in Global Health and Management, I am determined to advocate for sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for all. SRHR is essential in achieving gender equality and should be integrated into strategies and policies to close the gap in the number of women in science and enable girls and women equal access to education and economic opportunities. I hope to partake in closing this gap by promoting women’s rights and access to reproductive health services so that every girl and woman can have the freedom to make decisions regarding their body, when to get married, or when to have children. When girls and women can exercise their full sexual and reproductive health and rights they prosper and can reach their full potential and perhaps become the next great scientific researcher and innovator we need.
A recent research project in Fiji conducted by the Burnet Institute found that empowering and educating adolescent girls about menstruation can lead to more girls attending and completing school and advancing in their education. As a society, it is important that we work together to empower girls and recognise that they do not lack ability but simply often lack of access to equal education, opportunities, encouragement and women role models to look up too.
In a world where women represent half of the world’s population, and the demand for science and ICT related jobs are on the rise, advocating for more women and girls in STEM no longer seems just like the moral right thing to do, but more than ever, it is crucial for consistent and relevant economic growth of societies.
Just like achieving SRHR, ensuring gender inclusion in STEM careers and education will also require interdisciplinary actions. We need to collectively address broader issues such as gender roles and societal stereotypes. We need to support sexual and reproductive rights and push for gender equality and remind our girls and women that STEM is not just for men and that their gender does not determine what they can and cannot do. When girls and women thrive …societies thrives!
In the words of former US first lady Michelle Obama – “no country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens”. Sadly, this is still the case in most of the nations in the world where women and girls are systemically prevented from accessing education and actively discouraged from taking interest in STEM subjects. It was also the case for me growing up in Poland – the ratio of boys to girls in science and mathematics classes was usually 4 to 1. I remember being told that women are naturally more wired for the arts and humanities and it is best to leave the hard science for our male counterparts… which is quite ironic considering my high-school was named after Marie Curie, the first and only double Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and physics.
Things are slowly changing, dictated by the fast-paced technology growth requiring more researchers and specialists regardless of their gender, but also due to numerous campaigns and organisations supporting women’s empowerment around the world. However, although women and girls at universities are not a rare sight today, their position is far from equal to men. While the lower levels of academic posts are dominated by women, in the course of further career development the disproportions grow and only every fifth professorial title is awarded to a woman. Men make up nearly 90 percent of the highest level of researchers and over the past two decades the number of female researchers has increased by only a fraction.
These disproportions are linked to systemic gender-based discrimination but they also perpetuate the already stark inequalities further. Lack of women in science means less focus on women-related issues in research, particularly maternal and reproductive health. It was only after I got into the field of global health and research that I realised the impact of gender bias in biomedical knowledge.
For many years and only until very recently most of clinical studies have been done by men and on men, meaning that women’s health has been judged against the male model. This results in overlooking many conditions that primarily affect women (gynaecological disorders, pregnancy complications, sexual health etc.) but also misunderstanding symptoms and labelling them as “atypical”. It is not routine for researchers to account for women’s hormonal cycles in the studies and analyse the results by gender or sex. Women are more likely to have more side effects from medicines because often the drugs have been only studied on male subjects.
Ignoring sex and gender differences in research results in skewed medical knowledge and affects everyone. It imposes a huge economic burden and suffering on many, but it can be changed. I believe encouraging more girls to seek career in science will have a vastly positive impact and mean better sexual and reproductive health for all.