Glob­ally, women are un­der­rep­re­sented in sci­en­tific re­search and de­vel­op­ment, writes

New Straits Times - - Opinion - ANNA SHEN

GEN­DER in­equal­ity is the great­est moral and so­cial is­sue of our time — and the world’s most crit­i­cal eco­nomic chal­lenge. If half of the global pop­u­la­tion can­not ful­fill their hu­man po­ten­tial, the world’s eco­nomic growth will fal­ter.

We are be­ing robbed as we speak. If women fully par­tic­i­pated in for­mal eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity, it would add US$12 tril­lion (RM51.4 tril­lion) to the world’s cof­fers, ac­cord­ing to the McKin­sey Global In­sti­tute.

Drill down to spe­cific in­dus­tries — the tech­nol­ogy sec­tor — and glob­ally, women face the most pro­found im­bal­ances. At risk are the im­mense con­tri­bu­tions to in­no­va­tion that women around the world could make — if sim­ply given the chance.

We are now in what the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum calls the “fourth in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion”, an era built on tech­nol­ogy that fuses dig­i­tal, phys­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal worlds. It is im­per­a­tive that women con­trib­ute to the planet’s sweep­ing trans­for­ma­tion.

Imag­ine if women par­tic­i­pated fully and their in­tel­lects, tal­ents, and skills were fully used. Think of the prod­ucts de­vel­oped, tech­nolo­gies cre­ated, com­pa­nies funded and dis­cov­er­ies found. What an­swers would women find for the world’s most press­ing prob­lems?

Keep in mind women’s in­ven­tions to date: Marie Curie, win­ner of two No­bel Prizes, who dis­cov­ered ra­dioac­tiv­ity, ra­dium and polo­nium; Grace Hop­per, who de­signed Har­vard’s Mark I com­puter; and Ann Tsukamoto, who iso­lated stem cells, a promis­ing dis­cov­ery that could lead to a cure for cancer.

Sadly, the num­bers speak for them­selves.

Glob­ally, women are grossly un­der­rep­re­sented in sci­en­tific re­search and de­vel­op­ment (R&D). Cat­a­lyst, a global non-profit that works to ac­cel­er­ate women’s work­place in­clu­sion, re­ports that world­wide, fe­males ac­count for less than 29 per cent of those em­ployed in R&D.

In US, which prides it­self as pos­sess­ing the world’s most ad­vanced tech com­pa­nies, women hold less than 25 per cent of sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math (STEM) jobs, ac­cord­ing to the US De­part­ment of Com­merce.

When women ac­tu­ally do work in the tech sec­tor, re­ten­tion is an is­sue; neg­a­tive work ex­pe­ri­ences and a lack of sup­port spur women to de­part at alarm­ing rates. Al­most one-third of women in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing in the US in­tend to leave their jobs within a year. It is worse in other parts of the world, as women in Brazil (22 per cent) and In­dia (20 per cent) plan to quit dur­ing the same time pe­riod.

If one nar­rowly looks at the busi­ness case for gen­der, the ar­gu­ment is un­de­ni­able. Put sim­ply, women boost the bot­tom line and add in­valu­able per­spec­tives.

Ac­cord­ing to a Mor­gan Stan­ley re­port that polled 108 tech firms, com­pa­nies with a highly gen­der­di­verse work­force grew 5.4 per cent more rev­enue-wise per year.

Board rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters, too. Com­pa­nies in ev­ery sec­tor, not just tech, per­form five per cent bet­ter when they have just one woman on the board, ac­cord­ing to Credit Suisse, which ex­am­ined 3,000 com­pa­nies.

The Peter­son In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional Eco­nom­ics noted that out of 22,000 firms sur­veyed glob­ally in tech and other, 60 per cent had no fe­male board mem­bers. Nor­way, Latvia, Slove­nia, and Bul­garia had only 20 per cent fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion in board mem­bers and se­nior ex­ec­u­tives.

In de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, gen­der par­ity could en­able greater self-suf­fi­ciency. Con­sider the re­cent visit of Google chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Sun­dar Pichai to Nige­ria and the prom­ise that the com­pany will train 10 mil­lion Nige­ri­ans in the next five years, ush­er­ing them into the dig­i­tal econ­omy, a lofty goal that would open more Africans to the global marketplace. What if half — five mil­lion — of the newly trained tech work­ers were women?

Dr Unoma Oko­rafor, founder of the Nige­rian-based foun­da­tion Work­ing to Ad­vance African Women (WAAW), is work­ing across eight coun­tries to in­crease the pipe­line of fe­males in tech. She be­lieves that fos­ter­ing gen­der par­ity is crit­i­cal to poverty al­le­vi­a­tion and Africa’s rapid de­vel­op­ment.

“Tech­nol­ogy can em­power women who are cur­rently work­ing in agri­cul­ture or at home. Many entrepreneurs are women. How­ever, they are ex­cluded from the for­mal sys­tem,” she said.

Could a bur­geon­ing tech sec­tor wean th­ese coun­tries off for­eign aid? If coun­tries could train work­ers to think for them­selves, Africa could change the nar­ra­tive from aid to trade.

“We could em­power Africans to in­no­vate for them­selves,” said Oko­rafor, ad­ding that this was part of the goal of at­tract­ing women to ca­reers in STEM.

The prob­lem is in train­ing and re­tain­ing women lead­ers glob­ally, but dis­crim­i­na­tion ex­ists in the fund­ing mech­a­nism — ven­ture cap­i­tal (VC) — used to birth com­pa­nies.

In Cal­i­for­nia’s Sil­i­con Val­ley, where many of the world’s largest tech com­pa­nies launched — Uber, Airbnb, Google and Face­book — women face ob­sta­cles in VC. In fact, women-led com­pa­nies com­prised less than five per cent of all VC deals last year. Only seven per cent of part­ners at the lead­ing 100 VC firms are women.

This sum­mer’s avalanche of sex­ual ha­rass­ment scan­dals at Uber and sev­eral prom­i­nent Amer­i­can ven­ture cap­i­tal firms have made global front-page news.

Un­for­tu­nately, for women in other coun­tries, the story is also the same. In late July, the board of Kenyan soft­ware com­pany Ushahidi fired Daudi Were, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, af­ter an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of sex­ual ha­rass­ment by a for­mer em­ployee. She pub­lished de­tails on­line, re­count­ing the dis­turb­ing im­pact of his ac­tions. Eleven other women ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar in­ci­dents.

Ac­cess to cap­i­tal is un­mis­tak­ably pow­er­ful. Tr­ish Costello, founder of Port­fo­lia, a crowd­fund­ing web­site that aims to cre­ate a new class of women in­vestors, said that, “... the goal is to de­sign spa­ces that work for women in terms of in­vest­ment ve­hi­cles. Men say that there are no fe­male VCs and that is why there is a leaky pipe­line, but that is not true”.

Ruchira Shukla, re­gional lead for South Asia for the ven­ture cap­i­tal arm of the In­ter­na­tional Fi­nance Cor­po­ra­tion (IFC), gave hope­ful news: “The num­ber of women entrepreneurs in the tech space is ris­ing. Th­ese women will serve as role mod­els,” ad­ding that she is heart­ened by the women entrepreneurs she is see­ing, es­pe­cially as the IFC in­vested in a fund for fe­male founders.

Re­cent dis­cus­sions to raise women up are en­cour­ag­ing. Is it lip ser­vice? Across the tech in­dus­try, it is still a man’s world. It’s up to all of us — men and women — to change the rules. In­no­va­tion and the world’s fu­ture are at stake. IPS

We are now in what the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum calls the ‘fourth in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion’, an era built on tech­nol­ogy that fuses dig­i­tal, phys­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal worlds. It is im­per­a­tive that women con­trib­ute to the planet’s sweep­ing trans­for­ma­tion.

The writer is an in­ter­na­tional con­sul­tant for the United Na­tions, an en­tre­pre­neur and ad­viser to star­tups around the world


A worker at a stem cell bank. Ac­cord­ing to the United States De­part­ment of Com­merce, women hold less than 25 per cent of sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math (STEM) jobs.

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