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Is innovation sexist? International Women’s Day 2017

April 21, 2017

IDRC celebrated International Women’s Day by hosting a panel discussion on March 8 in Ottawa about women and innovation.

IDRC President Jean Lebel welcomed roughly 90 people to “Is innovation sexist?”, before Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Celina Caesar-Chavannes delivered opening remarks. The discussion was moderated by Rachel Vincent from the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

The panel featured:

  • Cecilia Rocha, director of the School of Nutrition and associate researcher at the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University (Toronto, Canada);
  • Helani Galpaya, chief executive officer of LIRNEasia (Sri Lanka);
  • Tabitha Gathoni Mundia of the International Finance Corporation (based in Washington, D.C.); and
  • Nozipho Motsa of the University of Zululand (South Africa/Swaziland).

These women brought varying perspectives on how technology and innovation apply to their communities and, most importantly, the prominent issue of sexism in research and the science/technology/engineering/mathematics (STEM) fields.

Is innovation sexist?

Cecilia Rocha believes that innovation is not inherently sexist, rather it is the research design and implementation that dictate whether or not innovation is sexist. For example, family grants intended to benefit women in Brazil are available by submitting forms signed by the head of the household.

Given that the heads of households in the majority of traditional Brazilian communities are men, this causes significant challenges for women. Although the intent of the family grant is to benefit women, it has a sexist outcome. As Rocha explained, “the design and implementation of policy need to have a clear focus on gender so that we can have some changes.”

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Why are there so few women researchers?

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, only 28% of researchers are women. Tabitha Gathoni Mundia attributes this statistic to the lack of role models in the field of science and the negative perception of women in STEM.

Adopting a cultural lens, she says women in STEM “are considered to be very strong-headed. In the African context, this can hinder the possibility of getting married”. Panelists agreed on the difficulty of establishing a work-life balance as women, explaining that the roles of caregiver, wife, sibling, or daughter are difficult to maintain while studying or working in the demanding and technical fields of STEM.

Consequently, many cannot or do not want to balance work and family and may not have the support to do so. Nozipho Motsa explained that while some research grants are designed specifically for women, they do not take into account that many women have children. With more accommodations for women with children, there may be increasing numbers of women becoming researchers or working in STEM fields.  

Is the situation likely to improve?

While women face specific obstacles in a male-dominated field, all of the panelists believe that there is hope for women in the future of innovation. Motsa believes in the importance of instilling a growth mindset in youth.

“When we start involving youth from an early stage, it becomes easy to change the mindset as the child grows… We don’t need to limit them to one environment — the kitchen,” she says.

Helani Galpaya took a different approach, explaining that the main issues involve institutions, which are difficult to change. Yet she remains hopeful because “in order for economic development to take place, you can’t leave women out.”

From Mundia’s perspective, the future will improve once everyone — women and men — have access to equal opportunities through widespread internet access. 

Despite how far we have come, there is still progress to be made in order to reduce sexism in the research/STEM fields. However, we are likely to see more women in research if we continuously support and empower women, and change society’s bias that technical fields are a man’s domain. As Rocha maintains, “We live in very sexist cultures and societies, and it is up to women and men to change that.”

Celebrating women and innovation and asking the question: Is innovation sexist?

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IDRC presenting a panel about "is Innovation sexist?" hosted by president of IDRC President Jean Lebel with a panel of diverse woman from around the world.