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Address delivered during the FORUM III

by Ms. Flavia Pansieri
Deputy Director,
United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

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I am greatly honoured to represent the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) at this World Conference on Science. I am also convinced, as we all are at UNIFEM, of the importance of this Conference for the work of UNIFEM, but also of the importance of the work of UNIFEM in relation to the topic of this Conference, which is seeking A new Commitment for the XXI Century.

This is why UNIFEM, which is a small UN organization with still far too limited resources, decided to be present at this Conference with its own staff and, more importantly, by sponsoring the participation of a number of women scientists who would otherwise not have been able to contribute their voice, their wisdom to the deliberation of this Conference.

We strongly believe in the importance of scientific progress and technological advances for the improvement of women’s lives. We equally believe in the importance, indeed the essential need, of women’s contributions to scientific progress and technological advancement.

Science is not neutral, as we have been repeatedly reminded over the last few days. Science impacts on society, promotes well being, improves lives, but can also be used for destructive purposes.

The ethical underpinnings of scientific progress, the non-neutrality of science, implies that outcomes are not necessarily the same within different socio-economic contexts. They are also not the same for women and men.

We must all recognize the potential for this differential impact. By way of example, how can we address the potentially negative impact on women’s health of newly developed drugs, if their positive effects are assessed without taking into account not only men’s, but also women’s specific characteristics and reactions?

Or, to give another example, how can we accurately measure the impact of technological innovations if this is measured only in relation to men’s productive activities without taking into account the parameters of women’s specific economic and productive roles?

Science and technology impact on women’s lives, but it has to be equally recognized that women too have played and still play a significant role in advancing scientific knowledge. This role goes often unacknowledged: on the one hand women’s lesser participation in decision-making and their consequent lesser visibility in society results at times in their contributions as scientists and technologists being appropriated by male relatives or acquaintances; on the other hand, this role is also unacknowledged because women’s scientific knowledge and technological innovation has been produced outside the formal scientific and technological sector, as is the case for indigenous technologies.

The language, problem diagnosis and experimental methods of the women who are custodians of a significant part of this indigenous knowledge are detailed, logical and internally consistent frameworks of understanding, even while the do not correspond fully to the established parameters of mainstream scientific analysis.

Let me refer to a Food Technology Contest in the Andean region, which UNIFEM sponsored, in partnership with the Women’s Popular Education Network. The contest had the objective of presenting, sharing and rewarding women’s scientific and technological activities in food production. The winner of the contest was a group of women in Peru’s central highland region, who were using traditional Andean cereals to make snacks, sweets, preserves and other foods. They experimented with different grain mixtures and evaluated the results based on the quality of the product and its nutritional content. They found a market in schools thanks to the high nutritional content of their products. They were also successful in blending traditional knowledge with that of their group leader who, having attended university, possessed also a formal training in nutritional science. They were able to link their indigenous knowledge and production methods with those of official science. This experience exemplifies the inventiveness of women in blending informal and formal science and technology. It also highlights the potential of technological innovation in overcoming poverty and contributing to sustainable human development.

Why are these and many other contributions of women to scientific and technological advances so little recognized? One of the reasons is their lack of representation at all levels within the scientific community.

To start, we need to ensure equal access for girls and boys to science education. This calls for special programmes to promote girls’ participation and retention in schools, and in particular in scientific and technical fields. This requires also adequate retraining of teachers, both male and female, to overcome the implicit perception that girls are less interested or apt in scientific disciplines than boys. The result, as has been documented by research, is that boys receive greater attention from their science teachers, thereby further reinforcing the stereotype of girls’ lesser aptitude for scientific disciplines.

In academia and scientific bodies in general there is still considerable gender imbalance. The lack of recruitment and retention programmes that take into account the dual role of women, their productive and reproductive functions, results also in a much lower number of women scientists obtaining adequate recognition and professional advancement.

Research on the effects on women of scientific developments is still grossly inadequate, mostly as a result of a lack of collection and analysis of sex disaggregated data that could substantiate the better targeting of policies, but also the more responsive definition of research priorities, taking into account the differential needs and impact of research outcomes.

A new way of thinking is necessary, doing away with gender stereotypes and with the image projected in educational systems of the role of women in science and technology. Women need to join the scientific mainstream. Strong networks of concerned men and women at the national, regional and global levels have to be established, to advocate for women’s rightful place in science and technology.

And finally, the insufficient representation of women in policy making bodies, where decisions are taken on research topics and priorities, perpetuates a situation in which women’s specific needs go unheard, women’s specific contributions and skills are not acquired nor acknowledged.

In turn, science and technology stand to benefit greatly from women’s increased participation. Scientific breakthroughs are often the result of looking at problems from different angles, of thinking differently. The more diversity in an institution or field, the higher the quality of the work and the more our knowledge is enriched. It is a documented fact that the more diverse a project team is, the more innovative results it can produce.

The role of women in science and technology needs to be rethought, as does the role of science and technology for women. As beneficiaries of science, women need to be on a par with men. Therefore, as producers of scientific advancement and technological innovation, women need to take their rightful role alongside men.

It is the hope of UNIFEM that this Conference will have contributed to raising awareness of the right, and duty, of women to participate in scientific work and benefit from scientific progress.

The new commitment to Science for the Twenty First Century that we are making here today, should thus reflect this and ensure that the next century will provide equal opportunities for women and men globally to participate in and transform science and technology.

UNIFEM will continue, within its resources and in line with its mandate, to promote women’s role and support the process to ensure that women scientists from the South and from the North are given all opportunities to participate and contribute to our common efforts to make this world a better place for all, for women and men, for girls and boys alike.


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