Under-represented in the past, women scientists are now shaping the future

By Dr. Brigitte Weston

While women have traditionally been under-represented across STEM sectors, we can – as we observe the 9th International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11 – applaud significant ground gained in recent years in some of the most cutting-edge fields that stand to transform the future.

In biotechnology, for example, which is revolutionizing health, medicine and agriculture, the latest industry survey shows the UK, Europe, and the US are close to gender parity, with more female graduates than male in some cases.

And while the gender gap remains stubbornly wide at a leadership level, and especially across many developing countries, achieving gender equality at the vanguard of science is particularly important for tackling the global challenges of food security and poverty.

As the entire world strives to sustainably produce food to meet the needs of a growing population amid a climate crisis, women scientists are playing an increasingly significant role in crop science and plant breeding. This is critical because the world cannot solve hunger and poverty through innovation without also solving gender inequality.

©Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations (Gates Ag One) / Rachel Seidu / Nigeria

Having worked in the crop science sector for more than 25 years, I have seen firsthand how the field has shifted towards more equitable gender representation. While working with other women in agricultural sciences was once an anomaly, I am now very proud to be part of the leadership team at Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations (Gates Ag One), which prioritizes gender balance across the entire organization.

And I’m both heartened and excited to see more women working to advance some of our greatest scientific and sustainable opportunities in agriculture, including our Gates Ag One grantees, such as the Enabling Nutrient Symbioses in Agriculture (ENSA) project. Not only does this help close the gender gap, but greater diversity is also likely to generate a broader range of insights and evidence, helping to arrive faster at solutions for global food systems.

Accelerating research into developing hardier, more efficient, and high-yielding crops matters to our collective future. The pace of climate change is outstripping the ability of food crops to adapt to new, extreme conditions. By 2050, climate change could reduce yields for some crops by up to 35 percent.

Moreover, rapid population growth in regions that have not yet fully benefited from advances in global crop science, including sub-Saharan Africa, is adding to pressure on food systems and smallholder farmers.

The greater the diversity among scientific minds working to unlock new agricultural technologies, the quicker we are likely to advance tools that give everyone the same chance to thrive. Evidence from the private sector shows how gender equality can unlock economic growth, but it can also maximize the impact of scientific innovation.

A gender lens is particularly vital when it comes to developing new and improved varieties of the most important crops grown around the world. In developing countries, which rely heavily on small-scale agriculture, up to half of all smallholder farmers are women, who face specific challenges and barriers in terms of accessing agricultural tools and technologies.

Improvements to staple crops through biotechnology offer the chance to increase productivity at source, allowing women farmers to benefit immediately while navigating the long-term gendered norms that hold back land and property ownership, access to finance and education.

A gender lens – applied by men as well as women – at a research level is essential to ensure crop science accounts for and addresses the realities of women farmers. A 2020 review of more than 100,000 research papers on ending hunger found just 10 percent considered gender differences in outcomes, despite women facing much greater vulnerability to climate change and food insecurity.

Lastly, maximizing the uptake of new agricultural technologies among women, especially in areas with strong social and cultural gender norms, can benefit from outreach led by other women.

In some cultures, it is not seen as appropriate for a male agriculture extension specialist to train or advise women farmers and yet a UN survey of almost 100 countries found only 15 percent of extension specialists were women.

In my own experience of running crop trials in India, women carried out much of the manual work of weeding yet told me how unusual it was to see a woman researcher like me in the field alongside them.

For crop scientists to see their research translated into effective tools that are used by women as well as men, they must work with gender-balanced teams from the outset.

After years of women being sidelined in science, our time has come just when the world most needs the equal contribution of men and women.

And so, while we observe this important international day by recognizing the gains, we must continue to ensure the participation of women and girls in science and research fields. All of us working in science have a duty to support the next generation of women and girls so that humanity can arrive at a more sustainable and equal future together.

Dr. Brigitte Weston is the Director, Product Development, for Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations (Gates Ag One). Photo ©Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations (Gates Ag One) / Whitney Curtis / USA.