What can the development community do to close the gender gap in scientific and development research?

In a Twitter Q&A for U.N. Women’s #HeForShe campaign, a fan asked goodwill ambassador Emma Watson what she needed to do to change her father’s thoughts on engineering, a field traditionally dominated by men.

The actress’ firm response: “Become an engineer.

Watson’s young fan isn’t in a unique situation. Various studies have shown that while there are a considerable number of girls interested in math and science at a young age, their numbers decline as they get to higher levels of education.

Apart from social and cultural norms that discourage young women from pursuing a career in the sciences, many of them do not have sufficient role models to look up to and accomplished women scientists and researchers who can encourage them and serve as their mentors.

While this in itself is worrying, the implications are much more troubling.

“The UNESCO Institute for Statistics notes that only 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women and this percentage is much lower when you look at female researchers in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Aimee Ocampo, Devex editor for business insight and analysis, said at the start of a video conversation around ending the gender gap in science and development research.

Ranjitha Puskur, senior scientist at WorldFish, said this figure is even lower in international agriculture research. She said only 1 in 4 researchers is a woman and the ratio is lower in leadership positions.

The same social and cultural norms that have kept women from pursuing a career in the sciences are also making effective data collection and analysis more challenging. In some developing countries, male researchers cannot approach women directly and would have to interview them in front of male relatives — and sometimes not even at all.

As a result, women’s needs aren’t effectively taken into account in poverty reduction and economic empowerment measures. The lack of sex-disaggregated data only exacerbates the situation.

Dr. Nikita Gopal, principal scientist at ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, echoed Puskur’s observations. In India, she noted, the percentage of women in the scientific workforce is low; it is even lower in positions that affect policy.

Jemimah Njuki, senior program officer at Canada’s International Development Research Center, stressed the importance of having gender diversity, especially within decision-making positions, because “men and women bring different perspectives to the table.” When discussing agricultural productivity, for instance, men would most likely ask questions on how to increase yields and which varieties and breeds are best suited for maximum output.

“The moment you put women at that table, the conversation shifts,” Njuki said, “because they start thinking about what are the implications for nutrition? What are the implications for women’s labor?”

Why is it important to have more women in science and development research? How can gender-focused research and sex-disaggregated data help in designing effective and more inclusive development interventions? Watch the clip above to see the full discussion.

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About the author

  • Jacques Jimeno

    Jacques is a former copy editor at Devex’s news production team. Previously, he worked with the Philippine Department of Tourism and the World Wide Fund for Nature.