Women, agents of change

Professor Vivian Wing-Wah YAM in the lab with a student. © V. Durruty & P. Guedj for the L'Oréal Corporation Foundation

Professor Vivian Wing-Wah YAM in the lab with a student. © V. Durruty & P. Guedj for the L'Oréal Corporation Foundation


Although there are encouraging signs, women are under-represented in science whether in basic scientific research or at higher decision-making levels. The solution to present and future sustainable development challenges depends on mobilizing the full power of science. Science cannot continue to deprive itself of the full scientific potential of over half the world’s population. Science is a key to knowledge; for women to gain access to knowledge and achieve gender equality women must have access to science.

The World Conference on Science (Budapest, 1999) shone the spotlight on the issue of women in scientific research. Among the points that emerged at the conference was that inadequate preparation at the secondary level remains a handicap for young women seeking a scientific career; that the prevailing method of assessing research appeared to disfavour women who frequently were involved in managing heavy personal and professional responsibilities; and that women’s confidence in their academic capacities was often undermined in unfriendly study contexts while the female perspective on environmental matters was not sufficiently encouraged.

The gender inequalities are also the product of a failure to recognize women’s knowledge and know how, in other words a failure to recognize that Women are responsible for half of the human knowledge and technical expertise as agriculturalists, gardeners, animal-breeders, forest users, managers of their community water needs and resources and last but not least as technological innovators and agents of change.

UNESCO has been very much a pioneer in promoting gender equality and the Organization medium-term strategy for 2008-2013 put us at the forefront of United Nations agencies in elevating gender equality to a top strategic priority. A two-pronged approach has been adopted: gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment in Member States and within the organization. “Mainstreaming gender” implies that a systematic effort is made to look at, and attend to, the specific experiences and aspirations of both women and men throughout UNESCO’s programme cycle, from planning to evaluation.

Notably, the UNESCO-L’OREAL Partnership “For Women in Science”, the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme and activities in the basic and engineering sciences place special emphasis on supporting women scientists, in particular young women scientists. Other specific examples include the fostering of applications by women to the Man and the Biosphere Young Scientists Research Grant Scheme, the increased assistance to the Association of African Women Geoscientists in order to encourage women to present their work at scientific conferences, and efforts by UNESCO/IOC to achieve gender balance in ocean science capacity-building activities.

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