Every Bit Counts: Building a Better Future for Women in the Scientific Field

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is an annual celebration of female achievement in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). It is an occasion that highlights the changes needed for more women and girls to integrate into the ground-breaking scientific communities that are building the foundations of the future.
Every Bit Counts Building a Better Future for Women in the Scientific Field
Seven L’Oréal-UNESCO "For Women in Science" international rising talents with Fabiola Gianotti, CERN Director-General (Image: Julien Ordan/CERN)

During its 70th session in 2015, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed resolution 70/212, designating February 11th the annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

During its 70th session in 2015, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed resolution 70/212, designating February 11th the annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The resolution, adopted in front of an international audience of women in science, was sponsored by more than 68 countries and received the approval of all UN Member States.

Although the wide acceptance of the resolution signaled “the global community’s interest in transforming our world through achieving gender parity in educational opportunity and scientific participation and preparation,” female researchers in the field still face many challenges.

Waiting for Change

Globally, the number of women researchers as a share of total researchers was 28.8 percent in 2015, according to UNESCO statistics. The representation of women in research varied greatly by region, with the lowest number in South and West Asia (18.5 percent) and the highest in Central Asia (48.1 percent).

While there is a perception in the West that Arab women are marginalized, the actual representation of Arab women in research partly refutes this stereotype. The percentage of women researchers in the Arab world (39.8 percent) surpasses that of women researchers in both North America and Western Europe combined (32.3 percent).

Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan are currently the most populous countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), according to the World Bank.

Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan are currently the most populous countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), according to the World Bank. UNESCO data estimates that women represent 44 percent of researchers in Egypt, 35 percent in Algeria, and 40 percent in Sudan.  

Although women in the Arab world outperform their male counterparts and enroll at higher rates in STEM majors at university than their female counterparts in the U.S., they remain underrepresented in the workplace.

The disconnect is largely the result of the limiting beliefs and strong stereotypes that women struggle within the Arab world. However, in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the region can no longer afford such gender-based discrimination. It is not only prejudicial to the advancement of Arab women in science and research, but it is also hurting the entire region’s development.

The Dawn of a New Age

Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), first introduced the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in 2016 at the forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. In the same year, he wrote a book with the same title and defined the era as an age of “digital revolution . . . that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has been marked by technological breakthroughs in multiple fields, including artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.

Experts argue that the main difference between the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions is that “technology is merging more and more with humans’ lives and that technological change is happening faster than ever.”

According to a CNBC report, while it took 75 years for 100 million users to adopt the telephone, it only took two years for Instagram to sign up the same number of users. After the launch of Pokemon Go—an augmented reality mobile game based on the popular Japanese media franchise—in July 2016, it reached 100 million users in just one month.

The rate of innovation has also significantly increased over the past two decades. The number of Fourth Industrial Revolution patent applications increased from just under 1,000 in the year 2000 to over 5,000 in 2016 alone, according to 2017 data from the European Patent Office. This new wave of innovation is heralding both “a time of great promise and great peril” for modern society.

In his book, Schwab calls for leaders and citizens to “together shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.” Nevertheless, individuals are not the only ones who should be responsible for channeling this new era of technology in a positive way.

Public and private institutions worldwide must play an active role in shaping the future. Educational, legal, and logistical frameworks are needed to maximize the natural resources and human capital (of men and women) in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Public and private institutions worldwide must play an active role in shaping the future. Educational, legal, and logistical frameworks are needed to maximize the natural resources and human capital (of men and women) in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. LittleBits is just one of the many companies that are paving the way for today’s youth to become tomorrow’s science and innovation leaders.

Young Scientists: The Building Blocks of Tomorrow

Ayah Bdeir, an engineer and interactive artist born in Canada and raised in Lebanon, received a Master of Science degree from MIT Media Lab in 2006. During her time at the Lab, Bdeir started exploring ways to “put the power of engineers in the hands of artists and designers.” In September 2011, she founded littleBits, an award-winning kit of pre-assembled circuits that snap together with tiny magnets.

The New York-based education startup’s magnetic “Bits” snap together to turn ideas into inventions.” Its online learning community teaches children how to turn their passions into creative skills. “The idea behind littleBits is that it’s a growing library, we want to make every single interaction in the world into a ready-to-use brick: lights, sounds, solar panels, motors, everything should be accessible,” Bdeir explained in her 2012 TED Talk.

“LittleBits is an idea that came from a very personal experience . . . . I’m an engineer myself and I was always feeling very constrained by engineering. It wasn’t creative, it wasn’t playful enough, and it wasn’t open,” Bdeir told Walmart’s Outside the Box podcast. “LittleBits was kind of my experiment to make [engineering] more fun and playful, and more inviting to other people who are not engineers.”

Bdeir credits her parents with nurturing her love of math, science, and design. “I feel like I grew up in a very special home where my parents didn’t believe in gender difference. They didn’t raise us like girls the way girls are raised a lot of times in the Middle East. My mom really wanted us to be scientists and engineers and really push ourselves and be career women.”

As a child, Bdeir loved to take things apart. Through littleBits, she wishes to spread this sense of curiosity to a new generation of children by making engineering a fun and instantaneous experience. She also seeks to broaden the pool of innovators to “get the kid that’s not the science kid” or “the young girl that thought technology wasn’t for her.” Ultimately, Bdeir wants all people, no matter their age, gender, race, nationality, or ability, to become creative problem-solvers: “We want to encourage a world of creators and inventors and contributors.”

To date, littleBits has sold millions of kits in over 70 countries and won more than 150 awards in tech, education, and toys.

To date, littleBits has sold millions of kits in over 70 countries and won more than 150 awards in tech, education, and toys. These awards include The Toy Association’s 2018 Creative Toy of the Year, Common Sense Education’s “2018 Top Pick for Learning,” CNN’s “Top 10 Startups to Watch,” and one of CNBC’s “Next List.” Yet, perhaps one of the educational startup’s biggest achievements has been the fact that “up to 40 percent of the kids using littleBits kits are girls,” which is four times the industry average.

While the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a unique occasion to celebrate women’s achievements in this field, it is also a reminder that more can, and more must be done. The key stakeholders in our global communities must change the way that our social, economic, and political institutions function so that more women and girls can re-engineer our world and our future.