Courtesy of Storyset

The gender gap within science has been common through the years, but gender equality has always been a “core issue” for the United Nations (UN). According to the UN, there has been a substantial increase in participation of women and girls in science-related spaces; however, they are still underrepresented in the science and technology fields. To spread awareness of the issue, the UN established Feb. 11 as International Day of Women and Girls in Science. 

The ninth International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly was held on Feb. 8-9, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. This year’s theme was “Women and Girls in Science Leadership – A New Era for Sustainability.” The event centers around acknowledging women and girls as important resources of scientific and technological advancements. Gathered at the UN assembly were “women in science leaders and experts, high-level government officials, representatives of international organizations, and the private sector,” where their topic of discussion was “women’s leadership” to accomplish “Sustainable Development.” 

The UN General Assembly created the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in 2015 to celebrate the talent and contributions of female scientists and recognize the ongoing gender-based challenges in scientific fields. One of the goals of commemorating the day is to encourage the inclusion of the female perspective and female talent in order to accomplish international economic progress. The day is also a reminder that women play a “critical role” in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and their “participation should be strengthened.”

Dr. Jill Pentimonti, President of The Science Coalition, which is an organization of the leading research universities in the United States that informs legislators of the importance of research in order to generate federal funding for various projects, comments that it “is such a good sign” to have a day drawing attention to “diversifying the STEM workplace.” She states that The Science Coalition “works hand in hand with the Women in STEM Caucus” on Capitol Hill to discuss “the challenges of being a female in STEM.” Thus, by calling attention to these issues, they are able to receive “full funding opportunities” geared towards “building diversity in graduate and undergraduate students and faculty,” Dr. Pentimonti believes “we’re moving in the right direction.” 

However, to better understand the underrepresentation of women in STEM, the UN found that women are only 33% of all researchers, and women are only 12% of the members of national science academies. Labiotech, an online journalism platform covering the biotech industry in Europe, released an article in 2023 that compiled a list of STEM professionals’ personal struggles and challenges they had to overcome during their careers. A common theme was a lack of representation and Imposter Syndrome in higher-level positions.  

When observing the hierarchy of power in the STEM field, an article by Anne Phelan, Chief Scientific Officer of BenevolentAI, states that “women make up 67% of junior level roles,” but “the real issue lies in getting them up the ladder” because only 26% of executive level managers are women though they “represent over half” of the high-potential employees. This coincides with the UN’s statement that female researchers tend to have “shorter, less well-paid careers,” and they are “underrepresented in high-profile journals” and are not promoted as often. Pentimonti also sees that “women are cited less in professional papers.” 

In order to recognize female research accomplishments, Pentimonti believes that we should first “formalize” some of the issues to have “clear programs and initiatives” as solutions. The Science Coalition tries to combat the grant gap and overall gender gap by “storytelling” the works of female researchers to generate “more federal funding” for research and mentorship initiatives. She claims that evidence shows “mentoring” helps girls in STEM progress in their careers; however, there are few willing and able to become mentors for future female researchers. 

Women who may be able to become mentors in research fields will leave their positions once they start a family. The 2019 research article, “The Changing Career Trajectories of New Parents in STEM,” by Erin A. Cech and Mary Blair-Loy, claims that 43% of women leave their full-time jobs within the year of having their first child. The eight-year study looked at the percentages of men’s and women’s employment patterns within the first year of having a child. Only 23% of men ended up leaving their role after having a child. The article reasons that traditional societal roles and values may leave women to be the main caretakers of children, and with a lack of paternal leave policies, it is even a greater challenge to keep women in the STEM fields. 

To resolve these issues, Dr. Pentimonti suggests that “structural barriers are [to be] taken down” at “agencies and universities.” She explains that it can “get exhausting” when women in STEM must complete other obligations that “aren’t actually your measurement of success.” Therefore, she is advocating for a “change structurally” within the field. Therefore,  incorporate and incentivize mentorship directly into professional research jobs. And not just for the professionality of it, but for the societal guidance of other problems women must face within their personal life. 

In the end, Dr. Pentimonti and concerned parties want to “ensure all people have the ability to do both” in regards to having a personal and professional life, in addition to having “a strong STEM workforce.” 

In their own efforts to help female students in STEM accomplish their goals within the field, the University of California, Riverside (UCR) has the Women’s Resource Center Graduate Mentorship Program and Women in Leadership Program to “receive guidance” and “engage and uplift each other.” Both programs can help women become connected with mentors and each other for professional development.