WHEN I WAS 16, I had an idea to help drought-stricken South African cultures: a new material created from orange and avocado peel that could hold up to 300 times its weight in water. Inspired by waste from the juicing industry, I developed this new superabsorbent polymer after seeing how the water crisis was affecting my country during a month-long road trip with my family. In 2016, I won the Google Science Fair with it.
Through my high school education, online research journals, and trade publications like Scientific American, I was able to create my polymer. Not all girls have access to this material. Young women and girls around the world are disproportionately discouraged from studying subjects such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or pursuing careers in these fields as adults. The gender divide is glaring in the workplace. In America, men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM courses in college, and women make up just 28% of the workforce in STEM fields.
Bridging this gender divide is the key to a better future. Solutions to some of our world’s most pressing problems could be there in the minds of girls everywhere. But if they can’t access quality education in these areas, the world will never know them. For the past few years, I have campaigned to bridge the gender divide in STEM and to encourage girls to study these subjects. What excites me most about this advocacy is that every day I could help beat cancer, fight climate change, or design more effective, low-cost medical imaging devices, all while encouraging other young women to pursue these fields.
In my book “Youth Revolution”, published in 2019, I pointed out that failure to address gender inequality in STEM would hamper humanity’s efforts to innovate and solve the world’s greatest challenges. society. The covid-19 pandemic began a few months later, revealing the urgency of this problem and how gender inequality in STEM has fatal consequences.
Gender-responsive research isn’t a new idea, but it’s definitely lacking in many modern health studies. Proponents argue that it helps us understand susceptibility and optimize patient care and outcomes. During the pandemic, research has found that to improve care for covid-19 patients, prophylactic and therapeutic studies should include gender-specific design and analyzes based on historical disparities between men and women in disease outcomes. infectious. Yet in a 2020 paper, researchers from institutions such as Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that of 30 eligible pharmaceutical studies, none investigated how or why the effects of covid-19 pharmacological treatments varied. by sex and a quarter of them included twice as many. male and female participants.
Interestingly, much of the studies on the treatment of covid-19 specifically excluded pregnant women. Clinical trial registration sites do not offer exact reasons for these exclusions, but it could be due to perceived risks to pregnant women or their unborn children. This is a fair concern and not easy to resolve. However, the continued exclusion of pregnant women from therapeutic trials for covid-19 will result in missed opportunities to identify effective and safe treatments to prevent adverse maternal, pregnancy and childbirth outcomes. Consideration of the risks and benefits of inclusion should not prevent the participation of pregnant women in clinical treatment trials.
If more women were on research teams – only a third of researchers worldwide are women – I think we would see a bigger push for more representative data and female participation in research and treatment trials. This would result in not only fairer, but better scientific solutions. Consider that hip implants are more likely to fail in women than in men, as these devices are often designed for male rather than female bodies. One of my deep personal concerns is to ensure that bias does not find its way into the algorithms that are increasingly being used for medical purposes.
The health professions also suffer from a lack of female leadership. Globally, 73% of healthcare managers are men, while women make up 70% of healthcare workers. This lack of female leadership puts women at risk. According to a 2021 survey by the Women in Global Health network, which supports women working in the sector, less than 20% of frontline female healthcare workers say protective clothing has fitted them well during the pandemic. Women’s health issues are also less likely to receive research funding. More female health leaders could also help close the gender pay gap, improve patient outcomes and end the cycle of inequality.
In order to achieve gender equality in science, we need the support of parents, educators and leaders to create a pool of female talent in STEM fields. Teachers can help by emphasizing the importance of trial and error in the classroom. This is more important than ever given that young girls are interested in STEM subjects around the age of 11, then quickly lose interest by age 15, according to a 2017 study commissioned by Microsoft. More girls than boys experience this decline due to social pressure, lack of mentors or access to hands-on learning. The enthusiasm does not return.
Setbacks are at the heart of scientific progress, but girls are often more cautious about failure than boys. Teaching girls to use failure is essential to their progress in STEM fields and, later, in their own research projects. Legislators should increase funding to expand or improve learning opportunities (such as scholarships, grants, and clubs) for girls at local and national levels. Companies and other organizations should consider offering more special programs or summer internships for women and girls so they can experience the different career opportunities open in STEM.
Parents can help tremendously at home by showcasing role models and their successes to their young daughters and sons. Research has shown that when girls meet leading scientific professionals of the same sex, their conceptions of STEM, their attitudes towards the fields, and their motivation to pursue related careers all change for the better. It was certainly true for me. I have admired Susan Wojcicki for years. She helped found Google and is now CEO of YouTube. She was one of the reasons I was so obsessed with using the search engine to find research articles. She was also the reason I attended the Google Science Fair in the first place.
Kiara Nirghin is an award-winning inventor, technologist and author.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai invited Freshta Karim, Vanessa Nakate, Kiara Nirghin and Tigidankay “TK” Saccoh to write essays for International Women’s Day. Visit our hub to learn more.