The way of the scientist
Science and technology are increasingly seen as a means to sustainable development -- a prerequisite, in fact. But what, asks Reem Leila
, could be the role of women in this field?
Decision-makers in Egypt and North Africa are showing greater awareness of the role of science in society -- evidenced by the existence now in Egypt of a relatively complete structure for research and its application. Yet a question remains as to the credibility of any such project relative to the participation of women. During the North Africa Sub-Region Workshop on Gender, Science and Technology, held recently in Cairo, Hoda Rashad, head of Education, Training and Scientific Research at the National Council of Women (NCW) spoke of removing gender disparities as an essential precondition for balanced, effective development: "Women must nurture the conviction that they can be more active in scientific research and seek greater access to technology and technology studies."
Though it has expanded at a remarkable rate, the scientific community in Egypt, of which nearly a third is made up of women, remains underutilised. And of the more urgent challenges facing governmental and non-governmental authorities alike, according to Rashad, is enabling women to realise their full potential in bringing about development. Rashad blamed decades of bias in the Arab world, during which female participation was cut short -- it is now time for Arabs to eradicate female illiteracy, for instance, which stands at an alarming 70 per cent. The role of science is no longer restricted to development within the scientific arena but extends to the quality of life as a whole. One side of this, as Fatma Abdel-Mahmoud, former Sudanese minister of women and social affairs, stated, relates to the quality of school education: "Attention must be paid to the development of laboratories, so as to encourage empirical education." And it is in this context that the time has come for Arab societies to abandon the biased and unfounded tradition whereby the national sciences are the exclusive arena of boys.
Despite the remarkable professional success of North African female scientists in a short span of time, NCW Secretary-General Farkhonda Hassan underlined the findings of preliminary analysis, which indicate that the proportion of women in scientific professions in North Africa, especially Tunisia, do not reflect their capabilities. This is the result of a variety of economic and cultural factors -- educational inefficacy and gender stereotyping among them. "Although educational policy in Egypt provides free education for all," Hassan asserted, "regardless of gender, thus offering boys and girls equal opportunities, a discipline- based analysis shows the drastic effects of gender stereotyping. According to the Scientific Research and Technology Academy's Amal Makhlouf, what is more, even the scientific curricula, in relating concepts to everyday experience, are gender biased -- something that results in a kind of self-inhibition that not only restricts the number of women in scientific fields but perpetuates itself over time. She agreed with other participants that, in forging policy, it is essential to improve the system of collecting gender disaggregated data at national and regional levels, and to do so in the private as well as the public sector; such information provides crucial insights into the key issues -- women's status, access and overall role in the specialised labour market. It was in response to this latter point, happily, that Hassan announced the launching of a project to establish a database precisely to this end.
Abdel-Mahmoud spoke of the need for greater female participation in science and technology decision-making and advisory bodies as well, more specifically: "decision-makers need to understand the gender implications of their policies. Women have their own distinct strengths and needs -- and their own perspective on development." This is, as much as anything, to prevent technological developments from benefiting men more than women -- with the very designs, in some cases, failing to respond as much to women's requirements. To remedy this, female professionals can identify issues related to the observed differential impact of science and technology. "They can make a significant contribution as planners, creative agents, designers, evaluators and educating-coaches." Popularising science by "bringing it to the grassroots", she added, would bring help, raise awareness of the significance of science in development and, more to the point, of the female dimension of the issue. The role of women in non-governmental institutions was particularly stressed in this context: "They can bring to light research that is neglected at universities and research institutions because it is conducted by individual woman scholars, for one simple example."
Finally, as all participants agreed, universities and research units are expected to make more effort in improving technical and scientific educational systems, customising them to the demands and requirements of women in a wide variety of ways.