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OP-ED: Breaking science’s glass ceiling

  • Published at 06:01 pm February 10th, 2021
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Is Bangladesh doing enough to equalize the playing field for women in science and technology?

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day was marked by the United Nations General Assembly on December 22, 2015 in order to recognize the critical role of women and girls in science and technology. The main focus of this day is t ensure the equal participation and involvement of women and girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

In today’s world, the role of science education cannot be undervalued; the World Economic Forum anticipated that 90% of future jobs will require some form of ICT knowledge. But women are still underrepresented in STEM -- data from Unesco shows that only one-third of all female students choose STEM-related subjects in higher education, though in case of ICT subjects, it is just 3%. Moreover, according to The World’s Women 2020: Trends and Statistics report of the UN, women represent only slightly more than 35% of the world’s STEM graduates.

This limited representation of women in science education makes them a minority group in scientific research and development, making up less than one-third of the world’s researchers while the percentage is lowest in South and West Asia, comprising only 18.5% female researchers. 

Globally, around 6% of women have gotten Nobel prizes; their credit is also sometimes stolen by their male counterparts, as reported by BISR. Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows that only 22% of AI professionals are women. 

Looking at the global scenario, one might ask where Bangladesh stands. The Gender Statistics of Bangladesh, published by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in 2018, shows that the share of female STEM graduates in tertiary level is only about 20%, which ought to be at least 40% as per rate of female graduation. 

The report also shows that till 2017, only about 20% female students were in Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (Buet). In Dhaka University, about 30-40% students in physics and chemistry are female. However, in medical education, female students outnumbered the boys. As of 2017, 55% female students enrolled in different public medical colleges while the percentage is a little over 57% in case of private medical colleges. 

Besides education, women are also underrepresented in STEM-related job sectors. If we look at the website of five prominent research organizations of Bangladesh, we will get a real picture of the current scenario of women’s participation in STEM jobs. The website of International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) provides a list of 221 scientific staff currently working in that organization. Among them, only 82 are women. 

A total of 72 scientific officers are working in Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR), and 28 of them are women. In Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), 12 out of 34 researchers are women, and in the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, 16 out of 90 of the total scientists and engineers are women. The website of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute provides a list of 227 scientists where 54 of them are women. 

The picture of the other research and engineering organizations of the country is not different from these five organizations. Looking at these websites, the names of male scientists, researchers, and engineers will be found more frequently than women.

However, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science focuses on the reality that science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Bangladesh, being committed to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, needs to ensure gender equality in science along with all other sectors. For this, it is necessary to start from the primary level. Forming STEM clubs in every school of Bangladesh can encourage girls to study STEM subjects. Organizing STEM innovation fairs and competitions in all educational institutions would be helpful to find young scientists, even from the remote areas of the country. Providing research stipends and other support would increase the proportion of women scientists in the future. 

At the occupational level, initiating more fellowships, funds, and grants for women scientists will pave their way to become scientists. The good news is that in recent years, the work of Bangladeshi women scientists is being recognized in international platforms. Among them, the name of Dr Firdausi Qadri (winner of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award 2020) is worth mentioning. 

In an interview with the Dhaka Tribune, she talked about the misconception related to the long working hours to become a scientist. She mentioned that giving attention and concentration on work is the key. Focusing on this would minimize the difficulties faced by women in balancing family life and a scientific career.

Sarmin Akther is a Researcher of Social and Gender division of Bangladesh Institute of Social Research (BISR) Trust. Her areas of interest are women empowerment, crime, and gender dimension of health. She can be reached at [email protected]

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