On Thursday, February 11 the United Nations will host a virtual assembly to mark the 6th annual International Day of Girls and Women in Science.
“At present, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women,” reads the UN’s press release about the event. “According to UNESCO data (2014 – 2016), only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3 per cent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5 per cent) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8 per cent).”
The statistics are even more ferocious than thought, according to a press release issued by the Amsterdam-based research firm Bold Data.
“Women are only 2.9% of the highest executive role at Information and Communications Technology companies around the world,” the Bold Data release states .
Another statistic from Bold Data laments the limited roles women are playing in the leadership of industries that are nearing the end of their life spans:
“Zooming into the heavy manufacturing industry, we see an all-time low in the Oil and Gas industry: only 0,005% of oil and gas companies are led by women,” Bold Data confirms.
In the Canadian economy, where almost 70% of the work force is employed by small and medium-sized enterprises, I can certainly cite lists of women trained as engineers and scientists who now play leadership roles in industries ranging from Aerospace to game development, from BioTech to supply chain management software development, from FinTech to small(er) pharma. Some of these women I have had the honour to profile on this very site.
Still, as the theme of this year’s day of observance is the role women and girls have played at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic, our concerns cannot be focused on the C-Suite. As of 2019, 47% of family doctors and 40% of medical specialists are female, says the Canadian Institute for Healthcare Information. 91% of Canada’s nurses, who have at least three years of science and practice-based education at the college or university level, are female, according to the Canadian Nurses Association. There is nothing surprising about the role women play in the scientific world of healthcare, especially during a pandemic.
The late Professor Ursula Franklin, one of Canada’s most revered physicists, metallurgists, peace activists and feminists, believed that women bring a “cooperative mindset” to the study and work of science. Women scientists were, she believed, interested in the effects of scientific knowledge on our communities rather than on economics of scientific knowledge.
Professor Franklin also believed that compassion was the most important quality to bring to any sphere of our lives.
Franklin’s observations explain the large role women in sciences play in health care, but they do not explain the number of women currently championing anti-science in refusing to help end the pandemic. The most prominent anti-vaxxers are women while female anti-maskers are playing a larger role at rallies and gatherings held in defiance of stay-at-home orders. Sentiments that communicate a fundamental mistrust of big-pharma, of medical officers of health and of epidemiologists are just as likely to come from female voices as they are from male voices. Dismissing COVID-19 as a bad flu, obtaining a Facebook degree in vaccine research methodologies and demanding that children attend school without masks, are the acts of women who have rejected science.
And so, perhaps this year’s observance of the International Day of Girls and Women in Science must also hold a moment of silence for those living women who have turned away from opportunities to learn about complexities of organisms and the microscopic behaviours of germs and bacteria, of viruses and RNA. May they one day, again, be curious about understanding the mysteries that remain under the microscope in this great puzzle of life on planet earth.
Image Credit: University of Toronto Archives.