Science, Technology and Innovation and Gender Equality and The Sustainable Development Goals

Jul 18, 2016

Training Workshop on Developing Talents of Women in Science, Technology and Innovation


Prof. Madya Dr. Ramzah Dambul, Deputy-Secretary General (Science) representing the Minister of Science and Technology and Innovation, Malaysia;

Dato’ Dr. Samsudin Tugiman, Chairman, ISTIC Governing Board;

Dato’ Dr. Sharifah Maimunah Syed Zin, Director, ISTIC;

Distinguished guests.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. Thank you for having me here today. It is a pleasure and an honour for me to address this group of distinguished women scientists and technologists, and also policymakers who are focused on integrating a developmental approach into national science and technology and innovation policies, and on making knowledge available about the potential of new technologies to address specific problems faced by developing countries.

It is important that you are coming together here and in other spaces, with more regularity, because STI is key to delivering the new global development agenda, and women will be central to the process of defining new pathways and solutions to achieve of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the other commitments to which governments have signed up, namely the Sendai Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, the Paris Climate agreement, and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development.

2015 was indeed a momentous year in global development, but for purposes of my address, I want to zone in on September 2015, when the United Nations General Assembly took two important actions: (1) it declared the 11th February of each year the International Day for Women in Science; and (2) it unveiled the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, which are underpinned by science, technology and innovation (STI), and the call for gender equality throughout all 17 global goals [Slide 3], alongside Goal 5 - the standalone goal to empower women and girls and achieve gender equality.  In taking these two actions, Member States collectively reaffirmed that science, technology and innovation (or STI) and gender equality are vital for the achievement of the universally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

We can clearly see how STI is being prioritised in the 2030 Agenda.  The UN General Assembly identifies STI as the fulcrum for economic and social progress; environmental protection; and our transition to renewable and new energy sources.  It is also the pivot for climate change mitigation and adaptation and disaster risk reduction efforts, resilience building; and preserving biodiversity and terrestrial and aquatic health.  STI is also a key driver of industrial diversification and value addition to commodities; finding more sustainable patterns of consumption and production, and ensuring food security, good nutrition, and health and well-being for all.

Through science, technology and innovation, we will provide universal and affordable access to the internet, information and communications technology; create new and decent jobs and enable and empower entrepreneurs; and provide more opportunity to population groups such as the differently abled, people living in rural or hard to reach areas, young people and women.   

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda, which set the framework for financing the global development agenda, also underscored the importance of STI, in establishing the Technology Facilitation Mechanism to support the Sustainable Development Goals.  The Technology Facilitation Mechanism will be based on a multi-stakeholder collaboration between Member States, civil society, the private sector, the scientific community, United Nations entities and other stakeholders.

A 10-Member United Nations inter-agency task team on science, technology and innovation for the SDGs was also formed earlier this year to support the Technology Facilitation Mechanism.  The Task Team will promote coordination, coherence and cooperation within the United Nations system on science, technology and innovation-related matters to enhance synergy and efficiency, particularly in capacity-building, and help to facilitate development, transfer, and dissemination of relevant technologies for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Distinguished guests,

The 2030 Agenda opens up immense opportunities. It challenges scientists and researchers like yourselves, as well as engineers, innovators and technopreneurs to find solutions to the increasingly more complex and urgent issues and risks faced by people and planet.  Like the rapid burst of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness, scientific and technological innovation in diverse areas have great potential to accelerate human progress, ensure that the benefits of development are felt by all, and to develop, build and sustain resilient societies, especially those that are furthest behind.

The empowerment of women and gender equality are closely linked and can serve to enhance progress in science, technology and innovation – and vice-versa.  Both gender and STI are cross-cutting imperatives across the SDGs - and together they can serve synergistically as important accelerators of the 17 goals.

Over the past 15 years, the global community has made a lot of effort and achieved some progress in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science. The possibilities of scientific and technological progress are almost limitless, and the avenues such progress opens up to accelerate development and improve the quality of people’s lives, while safeguarding our precious planet that sustains us, are many.  Yet women and girls are sorely missing in these fields that are transforming our world, particularly as creators and decision-makers.  Women need to be present in these fields to ensure our thinking, our decision-making, and our solutions are sensitive to, and enabling of, women’s needs and aspirations, and those of their families and communities in which they play central roles.

Unless addressed at all levels, with some urgency – from early childhood through adulthood -  women’s lack of participation in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields will slow progress significantly, and in some cases, might prevent many nations from reaching the sustainable development goals by the 2030 deadline.  Reducing inequality and attracting more women into STEM fields will support the achievement of both SDG 5 on gender equality and particularly SDG 9, on "enhancing scientific research and upgrading technological capabilities by substantially increasing the number of research and development workers per 1 million people by 2030". By working towards these goals and harnessing women’s full potential in STEM fields, countries will build capacity, increase their research and technological outputs, and reach higher levels of development.  They also will be able to tackle SDG10 and reduce inequalities and knowledge gaps.

Science, technology and innovation have the power to disrupt and shift trajectories, and accelerate the pace of development as they increasingly influence all aspects of life – from economic opportunity directly in STI sectors to the application of STI solutions within other productive sectors, including to help women grow business and social enterprise.  We see opportunity also, particularly through information and communication technology, to enhance education, learning opportunities and skill development; to improve data for better planning, targeting of investments and anticipatory responses to development challenges; for engagement with youth and political participation; and for women and girls to advocate for their interests, rights and social transformation.

So what does it look like when women and girls are able to embrace the opportunities offered by science, technology and innovation?  There are many success stories you would know working in these fields. One such story is that of Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, an Indian scientist who sidestepped gender conventions and broke the proverbial glass ceiling to become a leading technopreneur and corporate leader in Asia.  She started her biotech company some years back with just three people, and today under Kiran’s able leadership, Biocon has grown from a garage-based company to an operation that has facilities in both India and Malaysia, collectively occupying over 150 acres and employing a staff of over 5,000.  And her company has evolved from manufacturing food enzymes to biotech pharmaceuticals with cutting edge innovations to address diabetes, one of India’s largest disease burdens, and   a pressing global challenge as we see the rise in incidence of non-communicable diseases.

Kiran’s story, and those of many other women like her the world over, illustrate the enormous potential of what is possible when women are able to engage in and leverage the opportunities STI has to offer, and the positive spill overs that come with it. Her story, like so many others, also contains many moments where she faced additional challenges simply because she is a woman.

Gender Parity and Beyond

Ladies and gentlemen, it is 2016, and Kiran’s success remains an exception, not the norm. It is widely acknowledged that when it comes to women in STI, women are underrepresented in research and development in every region of the world. Globally, 28.4% of the researchers in the world are women. In South and West Asia, 18.9% of the researchers are women. Only one out of every five countries have reached gender parity, meaning 45-55% of researchers are women[1].

I must congratulate Malaysia here, for investing consistently in women’s education in STI.   

The result is that Malaysia is among the countries that have reached gender parity in research, with 49.9% of researchers being women[2].  Malaysia also can count among its achievements the fact that women make up the majority of students enrolled in undergraduate programs at university[3].  In that regard, Malaysia’s strong emphasis on education has enabled it to overcome one of the major hurdles with which many other countries still struggle.

Achieving gender parity, however, is only the first step towards gender equality.  It is important that women’s strong education in science, technology and innovation translate into related areas of employment.  But gender disparities stubbornly persist in the workplace.

Gender disparities in employment arise from a nexus of cultural, institutional and political factors.  Sectoral and occupational segregation, in particular, highlight how gender inequality goes far beyond issues of parity. Sectoral segregation, also known as horizontal segregation, pushes women in academia towards certain fields and women in non-academic careers toward certain sectors.  Thus, women and men are likely to continue pursuing careers in sectors and occupations that are considered “feminine” and “masculine” and are discouraged to challenge or shift this pattern[4]. Sectoral and occupational segregation may be viewed as a cycle.

The cycle starts with women and men being limited to certain occupations based on the gender stereotypes embedded in their respective cultures. These stereotypes are perpetuated and strengthened as they influence and direct how women and men explore their aspirations, preferences and capabilities. Equally, these stereotypes and gendered roles affect the perceptions of employers about women’s and men’s skills, capabilities and attitudes. The cycle is completed, when stereotypes become actualities in the workplace and reinforce the cultural norms from which they originated. 

8In Malaysia, women in STI are segregated along occupational lines. A higher proportion of women work in professions related to medicine or biology; a lower proportion of women work in physics or engineering. For example, 72.9 per cent of pharmacists are female, while only 10.6 per cent are professional engineers[5]. As important as education attainment is, it has little effect on the subtler forms of gender inequality like sectoral segregation. Even though women outnumber men in bachelor degrees, are more likely to pursue master’s degrees, and represent 57 per cent of graduates worldwide, these advances in gender parity in education have not helped reduce sectoral and occupational segregation.

Even in countries like Malaysia that have made substantial progress in achieving gender parity in education and research, significant cultural, institutional, legal and policy challenges remain that hinder the achievement of full gender equality. This is especially true for the science and technology industry, as all over the world, women scientists are more likely to be employed in non-regular positions than regular positions, paid less, promoted less, and win fewer grants compared to their male counterparts.

These trends do not come about because women chose to be paid less, or chose research areas because they were undervalued, or because women are less capable, talented or any less brilliant than men can be. They are rooted, in part, in deep seated attitudes about women which pervade our systems, institutions and policies. We need not look far for tales of overt or unconscious gender bias to see how men perceive women in a lab. One of the more outrageous comments made in recent times came from Tim Hunt, an English biochemist and winner of the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. Addressing a convention of senior female scientists and science journalists in Seoul, South Korea last year, he said, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”  Hunt said he was in favour of single-sex labs, adding that he didn’t want to “stand in the way of women”.  Such outdated prejudice and discriminatory attitudes have no place in our world, not if we want to achieve some progress on sustainable development by 2030. With so much work to be done for the betterment of people and planet, we must act decisively on this most basic belief and universal value - that women are equal to men.

Vertical Segregation

The fact that women are underrepresented in the higher echelons of academia translates into a smaller pool of female mentors for aspiring scholars to draw upon. Of course, this is a greater disadvantage for female scholars than their male counterparts, especially in terms of successfully obtaining grant funding[6].  When we consider the gender divide, the dynamics of obtaining research funding is a catch-22 scenario. Increasingly, research funding has shifted to the grant-project proposal mode, in which funding success depends to a large extent on previous awards and grants.  This is problematic when you consider that women’s concentration in lower grade employment status and in fixed-term positions makes them less likely than men to be eligible to apply for research grants, as many of the grant schemes provided by the main funding bodies are not open to academic staff in these groups[7]. Also, since men occupy a greater proportion of higher level positions, it is possible for them to apply for and receive larger grants when compared to their female counterparts.[8] The funding gap has been observed in a number of ways.  In the EU and the US, studies have found that "women are less likely to apply for research funding than men" primarily due to eligibility (due to vertical segregation).[9] In the U.S., women who were successful applicants to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant received only 63% as much funding as male applicants; only 13% of the highest-value grants (in the top 1%) went to women.[10]

Changing these patterns in academia and research will be difficult, as they are reflections of longstanding trends that have endured from the advent of ‘big science’ in the WWII era. Since the scientific process has increasingly come to rely on large-scale projects, there has been the tendency to relegate the ever increasing supply of qualified women scientists to roles as research associates or side line them into fields that were low in status and lacking in resources. Subsequently, women were disadvantaged in informal networks of communication among academic colleagues through the operation of a “stag effect” in which men excluded their women counterparts from informal communication processes[11]. The shadows of these practices can still be seen today, in the fact that women scholars are expected to meet higher standards for promotion at research universities.

Gender segregation persists outside academia and the research field.  Across the globe, gender is still a major determinant in where STI scholars find employment. According to UNESCO, female researchers tend to work in the academic and government sectors while men dominate the private research sector, which offers better salaries and opportunities for advancement[12]. In the public sector and academic institutions, women make up a little more than 50% of the total researchers. In the private sector, only 31 % of researchers are women[13]. Moreover, the pipeline from middle management to top management is also weak. In Malaysia, 52% of women are located at the executive level, 40% at the senior and middle management level, and only 22% in top management. For women CEOs, this percentage shrinks to 5%.

The Gender Gaps

The gap between male and female leadership also creates gaps in workplace policy and culture that affect women at all stages of their careers. Women in the early stages of their careers face a lack of amenable professional networks, mentor and sponsor relationships. To some extent, the “stag effect” limits the access women have to traditional informal professional networks. While women are certainly not averse to being mentored or sponsored by men, and many are, there are often socio-cultural barriers that prevent women from forming those relationships. Moreover, some female employees may not look forward to a day of bonding at the pool hall or the paintball obstacle course.

Once women reach higher-level positions, like men, they continue to need mentors who can coach them in areas where they don’t have deep knowledge and provide professional and personal support as they develop their careers; and sponsors, i.e. senior leaders who sit at the decision-making table who are willing to advocate on their behalf; and it is networking that will get them noticed, but this can be challenging for women coming up against social and cultural norms and the need to balance work with life at home where for many, the responsibility of care and unpaid household work is not equally shared.

Another important gap springing from unequal structures and relationships is the gap between female and male workforce participation. In Malaysia, the female labour force participation is 53.6%, which means that 4.69 million women are outside of the labour force (KPWKP, 2015, p. 34). This labour gap is a hindrance to economic development. If Malaysia aspires to be a high-income nation by the year 2020, it will require a ratio of 50 researchers, scientists or engineers per every 10,000 Malaysians. Currently in Malaysia, there are only 21 researchers, scientists or engineers per every 10,000 people. In order for Malaysia to reach its development goal, it must invest in and then leverage the human capital of both women and men.

Segregation, both horizontal and vertical, as well as gaps in workplace culture and labour force participation all contribute to the wage gap between men and women. This is why even in occupations where women dominate, such as services and clerical work, men still earn a higher wage for doing similar work. The global gender wage gap today is estimated to be 23 per cent; in other words, women earn 77 % of what men earn globally. However, vertical segregation does not explain all wage discrepancies. Men and women with similar positions too often receive disproportionate wages for their work. In Malaysia, the wage gap is greatest among, senior officers and managers. In 2008, the difference was RM1,774. While statistics show that the wage gap is narrowing, progress is not fast enough, and if existing trends continue, it will take 70 years to eliminate the wage gap![14]  But why wait 70 years when the world can solve the problem by 2030.

Worklife balance

Let’s also look more directly at another important factor, work life balance, to which I alluded earlier.  The office or the lab is not the only place where the work of women is undervalued. At home the burden of most unpaid domestic and care work falls to women.

Time-use surveys compiled by the UNDP in 2007 revealed that women in six countries in the “medium and low development” category spent a daily average of more than 3 hours cooking and cleaning, versus less than a half an hour for men. Women also spent 44 minutes in a day caring for family members, while men spent a mere 10 minutes[15]. This pattern is global. In the European Union, 25% of women report care and other family and personal responsibilities as their reason for not being in the labour force compared to only three percent of the men[16]. In Asia, one of the biggest challenges to increasing the numbers and status of women in science and engineering is the traditional view of women as homemakers, who should shoulder the majority of household chores, raise children and take care of the elderly and the disabled. These traditional views create social pressures for women to accept the burden of a “dual career” of both work and family duties, and, as well, the pressure to excel at both.

Women with careers in the sciences are not exempt from the effects of the ‘dual career’. In fact, its effects can be observed in a most pronounced way. In Korea, marriage, or rather the increasing care work that comes with marriage, dramatically influences work participation for female, but not male scientists[17]. Before marriage, work participation is nearly equal between men and women. In natural science and engineering, the work participation of women exceeds 84%. However, the average participation of women decreases drastically after marriage, to 52%, sharply contrasting with 93% for men.

The necessity of a more even distribution of household and family responsibilities between men and women - the need to share the care - has been recognized in the SDGs.

The shared responsibilities of the household and the family is emphasized in goal 5, and will be measured by the percentage of time spent on unpaid domestic and care work, by sex, age and location.

Where do we go from here?

The SDGs provide treatments for both the symptoms and the root causes of inequality, within a holistic network of solutions. As countries come closer to reaching gender parity in education, the next steps in addressing the gender divide will involve as a fundamental principle, recognizing the rights of women, and as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, recognizing that women’s rights are human rights.  This will take us a long way in combating outdated gender stereotypes.  Bridging the gender divide also will involve correcting structural inequalities, and implementing policy and practices that will allow women greater mobility in their careers and academic endeavours, and thereby the opportunity to reach their full potential. The commitment in Malaysia’s 11th National Development Plant to inclusive growth and to gender equality provides a framework and a roadmap to proactively take concrete action to address the current shortcomings for the national good.

In Australia, there are several bodies carrying forward real action plans to combat structural inequalities in the academic field. Specific commitments have been made by major Australian funding bodies, such as the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Universities and research institutions, such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization (CSIRO), are also increasingly taking serious measures to eliminate discrimination in appointment and promotion, and to produce a family-friendly workplace. For example, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, a leading Australian medical research organization, has recently introduced a number of family friendly policies, including childcare support packages of $15,000 per annum, family and lactation rooms on site, technical support during maternity leave, and a stop-clock for contract renewal. The institute also has a five-year start-up fellowship, worth $1.25M, to attract new female laboratory heads.

Sweden has made efforts to brush aside the rusted and outdated concept of women as the sole caregivers in the family with reforms of the parental leave policy. The policy builds on the idea that both the mother and father share the need to balance the care of small children with a working career. Out of the 480 days of parental leave, the policy reserves 90 days for each parent. These days are non-transferrable to the other parent, so fathers can either use it, or lose it. It started with one non-transferable month in 1995, and has now extended to three months. This policy aims to change the gendered division of care and household work, strengthen the child’s relationship with both parents. The policy also decreases the time mothers are expected to spend away from work, thereby changing the assumptions employers make about the reliability of male employees over female employees. It also serves to combat the idea that women are more suitable for care work than men. Policies, like this, that promote the sharing of family responsibilities will have a positive effect on equality in the workplace because they create a more level playing field between professional women and men.

Malaysia is working to better address the gender divide by opening the valves of policy to increase the flow of qualified female candidates to top decision making positions in the private sector. In June 2011, with the help of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, the Malaysian cabinet approved the policy of ensuring that 30% of women are at the decision making level in the private sector. Companies have been given a 5-year transition period to raise the number of women on their boards of directors and holding top positions. The Malaysian business community has taken note and has begun to follow suit. The private sector has acknowledged the gender imbalance on Malaysian boards and many companies have committed to voluntarily increasing the number of women in decision making positions.  The 30% Club was launched in May of last year.  The companies that joined seek to increase the ratio of female directors on their company boards to 30% by the end of this year. Thus far, among the top 100 publicly listed companies on the Malaysian stock exchange, the 30% Club Malaysia has reported a 15.2% increase in women board members.

Programmes like this highlight that Malaysian legislators and policymakers appear to understand the importance of removing discriminatory barriers to women’s participation in the labour market. However, the government still lacks measures to ensure successful implementation of its own initiatives. Consistent implementation, monitoring and evaluation are needed to ensure that these policies are translated into realities on the ground.

The example of Malaysia demonstrates that pump-priming policies, which just grant entry to women at higher numbers will not necessarily lead to gender equality, especially if it is not accompanied by a shift in attitudes and power structures. The fact of the matter is that in today’s work culture, the communication, decision-making and leadership styles of women are not as valued as those exhibited by men. Thus, it is also important to increase the awareness that gender bias in the mind set of male leaders has a great impact on cultivating female leadership. Dominant management culture can no longer view the emphasis many women leaders place on connection, empathy, emotional cue-taking, consensus-building, risk-taking, mutuality and questioning as a form of less-than leadership. Instead, it must be acknowledged that in today’s ever increasingly networked world the typical propensities of women leaders are more and more valuable.

One way we can start to change workplace culture is by including top leadership in mentoring systems specially designed for female executives and women in middle management as well as gender-neutral networking programmes. In addition to being invaluable for women in the latter stages of their careers, these types of policies can jump-start the process of changing the management culture. Furthermore, mentorship programmes can be a source of great support for women as they progress through their studies, move onto careers, and start their climb to the top. Initiatives from the business sector are addressing this. The 'lean In' Movement, founded by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, encourages women in all stages in their career to mentor another woman. If you have built your career, pay it forward by investing in a woman just starting out. Your input is valuable, and you may have been through just what she’s experiencing, the campaign emphasizes.


In conclusion, many challenges have been highlighted and some recommendations offered.  In general, the recommendations are an attempt to cover all aspects of society, from the economic, social, psychological, to the political. Most regrettably, as I tried to demonstrate through my address today, the current system is tragically underutilizing the potential power of women in Science and Technology,  thus crippling its own ability to succeed,  create and innovate. It is clear that these recommendations will take will, effort, vision, and money to implement.  While financial resources may be limited, will, effort, and vision need not be.  Indeed, we can compensate in ample amount so financial investments are well targeted and well spent.  As we look to the future, it seems obvious that the benefits that would accrue to Malysia, Asia, and the world as a whole, will make those investments well worth it, and transform our world for prosperity, people, and planet by 2030.  Let us ensure that when the community of scientists, technologists, technopreneurs and innovators come together each day on the International Day for Women in Science and we review progress, that we are moving decisively forward; that progress is concrete, measurable and visible.

Thank you.




[1] UNESCO, 2015b



[2][2] UNESCO, 2015, p.4



[3] UNESCO, 2015b



[4] Catalyst, 2005; KPMG et al., 2014, in ILO, 2016c



[5] Department of Higher Education, Malaysia 2014



[6] e.g. Didion, 2009; Bonetta, 2010



[7] Blake and La Valle, 2000



[8] Waisbren et al., 2008



[9] European Commission, 2009; Plantenga, 2009



[10] Hosek et al., 2005



[11] Bernard, 1964



[12] UNESCO, 2015b



[13] UNESCO, 2015b



[14] ILO, 2016



[15] UNDP, p.342, in KPWKP, 2015, p. 192



[16] UN Women, 2015



[17] Norris, C. (2016), “Does marriage help or harm your health? It depends who does the housework,”.



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