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'Women in science' debates hots up

29 June 1999

[BUDAPEST] Discussions on women in science are never straightforward, touching as they do on a wide range of topics within areas such as education, institutional structures, society and culture. And exactly the same can be said of development.

So, unsurprisingly, when development met women in science at a thematic meeting on "gender mainstreaming in science and technology" yesterday, there was a certain lack of consensus and focus in the debate. Indeed in some ways the clash of ideas was a microcosm of the conference itself.

What surfaced most clearly were the frustrations of many of the women present, speaking on subjects ranging from what they claimed to be the marginalization of women within the World Conference through the difficulty of gaining access to political decision making to women's personal and national situations.

The debate was often volatile, and some comments were sharply curtailed by the chairperson - Sjamsiah Achmad of the Indonesian Institute of Science - who demanded concrete suggestions for action and amendments to the conference's draft declaration.

Although many interesting and important messages were raised, it was difficult to discern any clear message or actions to improve the number of women scientists. When so many women enter the debate from a perspective of poverty, illiteracy and poor access to basic education, this is perhaps understandable.

At one fundamental level there was agreement. No-one took issue with the statement that women want to reach a stage at which their presence in professional positions can be taken for granted, or that women will be needed as resources for the science in the next century.

"We should not waste this precious resource of women's minds," said Tullia Carettoni, a theme echoed by Shirley Malcolm of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "No matter what the level of natural resources present within a country, ultimately its development depends on knowledge, skills and capacity of its people," said Malcolm.

Girls, she said, are intellectual assets, and women often play special roles in society and the family that make it all the more important that countries invest in their education and literacy within science and technology.

Malcolm also asked that language be changed. We need, she said, to talk in terms of human resources development, and the quality of science. This will help shift our thinking "from that of the minority and marginalized". For this, she suggested looking towards policy and business as a way of starting to reformulate paradigms.

There was much talk of network building, with special emphasis on registering the Third World Organization of Women in Science (TWOWS) and strengthening its role, an idea also mentioned in the morning's plenary sessions by TWOWS president Lydia Makhubu.

Another issue was the applicability of technology: when technology is brought in, does it help all people or benefit the male sector of society? One contributor pointed out that in some communities women are not allowed to touch new equipment.

Although gender, science and development are a complex set of issues, speaker and rapporteur, Geoffrey Oldham did provide a basic set of recommendations to government on gender, science and technology for development.

These form part of his work within the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD). UNCSTD's Gender Advisory Board has developed these ideas within a web-based gateway of information and resources that was formally launched yesterday (see http://gstgateway.wigsat.org ).

The results of this session are unlikely to reflect the events of this turbulent afternoon. Around the world, seven preparatory meetings have already taken place, crystallizing the debate into declarations, issues and concrete suggested actions. It is from these that the debate will move forward.

Perhaps the lesson to be learnt from the afternoons heated debate is that while business may best be conducted in a special section for women, their voices need to be clearly heard within every area of the conference itself. There is, in fact, a gender dimension to almost every part of it.


For the recommendation of the group on 'gender mainstreaming in science and technology' to those redrafting the final declaration, click here

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