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[CAPE TOWN] Increasing equal representation of men and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) could boost innovation and development, an international workshop has heard.

The global initiative in gender, science, innovation, technology and engineering, (GenderInSITE) and Elsevier gathered 33 international experts in gender and innovation this month (4-6 September) in South Africa to make recommendations to policymakers.

It is critical to identify practices that impact the lives of men and women in developing countries, says Roseanne Diab, GenderInSITE regional coordinator for Southern Africa and the executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa, which coordinated the meeting.

“We had never looked at the gender dimension of innovation. This is important because innovation has differential impacts on men and women.”

Roseanne Diab, Academy of Science of South Africa

Diab tells SciDev.Net that many studies examine gender issues in science, but neglect the impact of gender in creating innovations.

“We had never looked at the gender dimension of innovation. This is important because innovation has differential impacts on men and women,” she says.

According to Diab, although the workshop’s final recommendations are still being discussed, a key message that emerged was consideration of diversity and gender issues in the global South.

“Certainly, a more inclusive approach contributes to development for all and avoids marginalising some sectors of the population,” Diab adds.

Londa Schiebinger, director, gendered innovations in science, health and medicine project, Stanford University, United States, in a keynote address, said that it is important to integrate gender issues in creating new products.

According to Schiebinger, in some cases equal representation of men has been promoted through structural change in research organisations to stimulate science and excellence.

“Doing research wrong costs lives and money,” says Schiebinger, noting that some medicines were withdrawn in the United States between 1997 and 2010 for adverse effects on women because basic research had been conducted mainly on male rats.

“There was a need to understand how sex and gender functions in the labs. The constant retrofitting for women in science is not the best way forward,” she explains.

Schiebinger suggests that grant agencies need to explain to applicants the importance of integrating gender in their research, and called on higher educational institutions to incorporate gender issues in their curriculums.

The workshop also advocated for social science to be integral to STEM fields to help increase innovations. “We cannot do good science without social science,” adds Jennifer Thomson, president of the Organization of Women in Science for the Developing World. “Multidisciplinary [approach] is going to give us innovations that we need.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.