What if our future were designed equally by women?

11 February 2019

Writen by Shamika N. Sirimanne, Director of the Division on Technology and Logistics (UNCTAD)

It is a revealing exercise to ask friends or colleagues if they can name the top men in tech right now…and then ask them to name the leading women. Expand the field to science, innovation, engineering or mathematics and the gaping lack of knowledge of women innovators can floor you.

Not because they are not there. They are, we just don’t know about them – even when women operate at high levels, in plain sight. When Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for her pulse amplification invention in 2018, she didn’t have a Wikipedia page. She had also never applied for a full professorship.

In media interviews she played down this issue, saying it’s the science that matters. But most people still wouldn’t know who the now Professor Strickland was if you asked.

Women in STEM 

There just isn’t the kind of acknowledgment and storytelling behind women’s achievements and success as there is for men. That – and the gendered nature of digital divide – seems to be expanding not contracting.

Leaky pipeline

We also have a leaky pipeline. Today less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. UNESCO data between 2014 and 2016 shows only 30% of all female students going into higher education select science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related fields.

Globally, their enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3%), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5%) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8%).

Because women take fewer jobs in STEM, they may not be able to take advantage of the future demand for workers in frontier technologies.

Even worse, women leave the sector at much higher rates than men – US data indicates that after 12 years, about 50% of women left STEM jobs, compared to less than 20% leaving other professional fields.

This means that a crucial opportunity to offer both a woman’s perspective on design, code, innovation and development and new thinking in general, is being lost. And it matters to outcomes.

Safer but less prosperous route

An example can be found in India, where a study showed women’s college choices could be explained partially by their concerns of street harassment. Women were willing to choose a lower-ranked college if it was on a perceived safer route.

But attending a lower-ranked college can translate into 20% lower lifetime earnings, perpetuating gender inequality in both education and earnings.

Women have been left out of much more than science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Yet this is the sector that builds, designs and codes our future.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are increasingly integrated into our daily lives – think self-driving cars and an ecosystem of connected household devices – but the truth is their developers tend not to represent all society.

Gender bias by design

Recently, the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development examined cases where design had a gender bias. From seatbelts not factoring in the smaller size of women to certain medications only being tested on men, the world is designed by men.

Research has shown that the “female” personas of voice-assisted tech like Siri and Alexa has led to children barking commands at them without common courtesy, potentially shifting behaviour toward real women.

And algorithms learning from Wikipedia – where only 17% of profiles belong to women – will assume this is what the world looks like.

If more women had the lead in designing for innovation, would these design flaws still be evident? We don’t know, but without more women taking the lead in technological change, we never will.

While several efforts have been made toward gender equality, applying a gender lens to science, technology and innovation is vital.

New narrative

We not only need to discuss challenges and barriers for women to pursue a career in STEM-related fields, we also need to tell positive stories that give women and girls role models in these fields. It’s high time that we change the narrative on women in STEM careers.

Stories do that – stories like those of Mariana Costa, who teaches code to women in Latin America, giving them the tools to launch promising tech careers. With her social enterprise Laboratoria, Mariana has proved that when more women create technology, it means more women shaping our world’s future.

Or AfriLabs Foundation executive director Anna Ekeledo who runs a network of 133 innovation centers across 36 African countries, supporting hubs to raise successful entrepreneurs to create jobs and develop innovative solutions to African problems.

Or zoologist Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She works to improve the quality and increase access to education and careers in STEM fields as well as to enhance public science literacy.

Storytelling like this starts today, on the first International Day of Women and Girls in Science declared by the United Nations.

Unless we get more women working on technology and innovation and have more stories to tell, women will not have a say in how we communicate, work, produce food, provide health care and educate the world for future generations.

That’s not the future we need.




Women in STEM: Changing the narrative

Women have been left out of much more than innovation, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers, but these are the sectors that imagine, design, build and code our future.

UNCTAD's Women in STEM campaign showcase incredible everyday innovators, engineers, change-makers and disruptors in their fields to tell their stories so that others may follow in their footsteps.

Women in Stem