Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2024
Every February 11, UNESCO and UN-Women lead the celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, partnering with various organisations to mark the occasion. As the name suggests, this day promotes equal access to science for women and girls globally.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, established in 2015, by the United Nations General Assembly, also serves as a reminder of the invaluable contributions women make to scientific advancements worldwide.
A Historical Look at Women's Journey in Science
Over the years, women in scientific fields have confronted numerous challenges. While some received occasional encouragement and practical support, many encountered obstacles such as limited access to education, professional opportunities, and funding. Additionally, they often faced discrimination, prejudice, and gender biases.
For example, women pursuing careers in science often encountered institutional barriers, such as discriminatory hiring practices and limited access to educational opportunities. Moreover, female scientists faced challenges in balancing familial responsibilities with professional aspirations, as societal norms often dictated traditional gender roles and expectations. This inequality could hold back women’s careers and lead them to leave science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (STEM) .
Despite facing difficulties, women persevered, breaking barriers and challenging biases to contribute significantly to scientific progress. Their achievements paved the way for future generations of women in science.
During the second half of the 20th century, society started to change its views about female scientists. This change happened because old-fashioned ideas, cultural beliefs, and unfair treatment of women in science started to disappear.
Challenges Faced by Women in Science Today
A substantial gender gap persists globally across STEM disciplines at all levels. Despite significant strides in women’s higher education participation, they remain underrepresented in these fields.
As evident from the statistics provided by the UN regarding International Day of Women and Girls in Science:
- – Female scientists typically receive smaller research grants compared to their male counterparts. While representing 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members in national science academies are women.
– In cutting-edge fields like artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals (22%) is female.
– Despite a skills shortage in key technological areas driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women make up only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics.
– Female researchers often have shorter, less financially rewarding careers. Their contributions are underrepresented in prestigious journals, and they frequently face challenges in securing promotions.
This highlights the importance of celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science raising awareness about these issues.
In the following sections, we highlight three female scientists who have made notable contributions to the field of agriculture among the numerous others who have significantly impacted science. Their pioneering efforts are evident in innovative agricultural techniques, advancements in food distribution and preservation, as well as contributions to food safety and combating malnutrition.
3 Female Scientists that Changed Agriculture
Harriet Williams Rusell Strong (1844-1926)
Harriet Williams Rusell Strong, known as the “Walnut Queen,” was a multifaceted figure, excelling as a water conservationist, composer, mother, agribusiness woman, and inventor. Throughout her life, she was a passionate advocate for women’s rights, suffrage, independence, and education. Founding organisations and championing causes, she dedicated herself to advancing the rights and empowerment of women.
Despite chronic health issues and her husband’s tragic suicide in 1883 that left her with a struggling farm and four daughters, Strong persevered. Transitioning to specialty crops, particularly walnuts, she innovated irrigation techniques that led to significant profits. Her inventions, including a water-saving irrigation system, earned her recognition in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Mary Engle Pennington (1872-1952)
Mary Engle Pennington, despite facing barriers as a female student, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania at just 22 years old. She established her own laboratory in Philadelphia before joining the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry, now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There, she created educational resources to assist farmers in handling raw milk. Within a year, Pennington became the FDA’s first female lab chief, pioneering safety standards for food processing and production.
Her expertise in food preservation and refrigeration led to innovations in poultry cooling and egg treatment, earning her induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Pennington’s contributions revolutionised food distribution and preservation, earning her numerous awards. Even in retirement, she continued to serve as a consultant and vice president of the American Institute of Refrigeration.
Maria Isabel Andrade (1958-Present)
Maria Isabel Andrade’s agricultural journey began with her parents’ emphasis on education, leading her from teaching high school to earning advanced degrees in agronomy and plant breeding. Recognized by USAID, she delved into the neglected world of sweet potato, leveraging its potential to combat malnutrition in Africa. At the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Andrade championed the development of nine drought-tolerant varieties, benefiting over a million farmers.
Joining the International Potato Center (CIP), she spearheaded initiatives like the Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa, releasing 41 high-yielding, nutrient-rich varieties. The top-yielding varieties reached 123,000 households, and half a million farmers embraced the drought-tolerant options. Collaborating with experts in nutrition and economics, Andrade’s holistic approach revolutionised food security and income generation. Her groundbreaking efforts earned global recognition, including the 2016 World Food Prize and the 2017 Swaminathan Award for Environmental Protection.
Empowering Women of STELAR
The STELAR project, a three-year endeavour under the Horizon Europe initiative, is focused on developing a data management system tailored to the evolving needs of the agrifood sector.
As part of our commitment to supporting female scientists, STELAR will dedicate an entire month to celebrating the contributions of women from within the project who have significantly shaped its progress with their expertise and scientific knowledge.
Through this social media campaign, women from the STELAR consortium will have the opportunity to share their professional experiences, as well as perspectives on the pivotal role of women in science, serving as inspirations to younger generations.
Through initiatives like the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, progress continues toward a more inclusive and diverse scientific community. Women in science had a long fight to get where they are now, but certain challenges still persist. How the female scientists face these challenges, what they like about their job and many more questions will be answered in the forthcoming campaign.