This week, the Department of State took a step forward in advancing women and girls in science. Looking back on the week's activities, I am left with a sense of great hopefulness for the future. Here is what we did, and why I am so optimistic.
On June 13, over 100 representatives of the private sector, science organizations, governments, educators, and academia gathered at the State Department to ponder how to encourage women and girls to engage in science, technology, engineering, and math careers (STEM), and how to keep them in those careers. We were joined in this global conversation by 15 women scientists from Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, India, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, and the West Bank, each of whom brought unique perspectives.
This conversation matters because we are confronting major global challenges -- how to overcome food insecurity, how to prevent deadly diseases, how to preserve natural resources, to name just some -- and science is at the heart of the solutions. We need the best ideas from every source in order to make progress on tough problems, and that means that women must be at the scientific table. Too often, they are not. This leaves girls without role models or mentors and it deprives societies of the scientific talents and diversity of ideas that women bring to the table.
Our one-day symposium focused on the nuts and bolts of how to generate interest by girls in STEM and how to maintain them all along their scientific pathways. We spanned the on-line world of Google teaching tools for kids, the women-only biotechnology entrepreneur park in India, the programs that help women “re-enter” the workforce after time off for family care-giving, and professional development programs that help women scientists in developing nations become outstanding communicators and leaders.
A video clip shown by Change the Equation brought home the point that twenty-somethings working in STEM see the field as cool, lucrative, and something that provides them with a sense of serving society. Omolola Betiku, an aquaculture expert from Nigeria, said, “Feeding my continent is a reality through my contributions.” Her words summed up the essence of the symposium: with the right skills, women are empowered to make enormous contributions.
What was clear to me from the rich and diverse presentations and commentaries was that there are many common challenges facing women in science and girls in science around the world. The good news is that many of the “best practices” we discussed are ready to be shared, adapted, and replicated in new settings to overcome these common challenges.
I was particularly encouraged by the sense of commitment and action. Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen, Permanent Representative of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to the UN, announced that OIC would invite leadership from the RAISE Project, a campaign to increase the status of professional women in STEM fields, to meet with OIC leaders to consider how RAISE might be adapted to Muslim-majority countries. He also called for a conference in the Middle East region on the same set of themes, and the State Department pledged partnership and support to making that a reality.
In our wrap-up session on the third day, the women remarked how empowered they felt just knowing that there were communities abroad at the ready to help them succeed in science. They were thrilled to have interacted senior officials at the White House, and with Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment and Science, a leading voice for science at the Department of State, and Ambassador for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer. One of the more senior participants, a dean at her university, noted that she would return home to talk to her students openly about women in science and professional development, something that has never happened on her campus. Others expressed interest in learning how to develop public-private partnerships, or to bring high school students into research intensive centers as a means to inspire future scientists. The list of actions and ideas for cooperation is long, and the need for action never more important!
We entered these three days of effort knowing that we would share and that we would learn. All of this happened. And in the process, we gained new friends and colleagues, new understandings, and hope for the future. We look forward to working with our many partners worldwide -- governments, non-governmental groups, universities, multilateral institutions, the media -- both men and women -- to advance an agenda of equality and empowerment for women and girls through science and technology.