Unlock women’s potential in STEM and unleash the economies of the Balkans

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Bharati Sadasivam
Bharati Sadasivam

Team Leader, Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the United Nations Development Programme, Istanbul Regional Hub

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.

Friends of Europe’s Balkans Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkans Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

Women have immense untapped potential to contribute – on an equal footing with men – to the growing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors.

Dr Özlem Türeci, Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech, the company that produced the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, has highlighted their gender-balanced team as a critical reason behind “making the seemingly impossible possible – developing a COVID-19 vaccine within 11 months without shortcuts.”

As the pandemic’s cascading impacts continue to roil families and communities, Türeci’s vision is an indispensable one.

40% of all employed women worldwide work in sectors worst hit by COVID-19-related job losses. For women in the Balkan sub-region, whose labour force participation is already well below the EU average, the impacts have been devastating. STEM fields have experienced fewer reductions and are also projected to better withstand the long-term trend of automation, which currently threatens 70% of women’s jobs worldwide. But women are significantly underrepresented in these sectors in the Balkans and globally.

These are some of the reasons why the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has launched #STEM4ALL, a digital online platform using knowledge and advocacy to advance gender equality in Europe and Central Asia. The platform will help create opportunities for women and girls interested in STEM to interact with women professionals in their field. It will also link them to mentorship programmes across the region. The platform will be a space for sharing stories and experiences through blogs, interviews, social media and newsletters.

STEM skills are vital to future jobs in the green and digital transition

Although girls have as much potential to excel in STEM subjects as boys, multiple cultural and structural barriers obstruct women’s full participation as professionals in these fields.

Dr Jasminka Hasić, a professor and researcher in the computer science faculty at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has experienced gender discrimination issues first-hand. In her first job after earning degrees in computer science and engineering in the United States and the United Kingdom, she learned that she’d been offered a much lower starting salary than a worse-performing male colleague. Among her own students, she has seen that women have much more trouble getting hired and promoted than men.

All these have led Dr Hasić to become a committed advocate for gender equality in STEM and academia. Today, she is a mentor with IT Girls, an initiative that encourages girls to start thinking about education and careers in information technology. She also works with policymakers to ensure collection and use of gender-disaggregated data in the distribution of local and national research and development grants to prevent gender bias in the selection process.

Dr Hasić’s story helps illustrate that to strategically position the Balkan economies for lasting post-pandemic recovery, we need many actors to come together. Women have a crucial role as mentors and achievers to give young women the confidence to enter STEM sectors. In tandem, governments, companies and universities must address and combat gender discrimination by encouraging and investing in women’s full participation in STEM studies and employment. Such an ecosystem approach is vital in overcoming the multi-layered gender inequalities in STEM fields. It is the underlying principle of the #STEM4ALL platform as we engage with diverse partners in the coming months.

Of course, promoting gender equality in these sectors must go hand in hand with systematic measures aimed at providing equal opportunities in the economy overall. This is a critical priority at a time when women’s rights are being eroded and hard-won gains have been slowed or reversed by the COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, STEM skills are vital to future jobs in the green and digital transition, and we must close gender and other gaps to ensure that no one is left behind. Through #STEM4ALL, our aim is to galvanize collaboration on the following actions.

Gender equality in STEM fields is part of the larger and still elusive goal of workplace equality

First, raise awareness through active outreach to students and educators on the skill needs of the future world of work and the diversity of STEM opportunities, as well as the need to combat gender stereotypes. In this context it is vital to promote women in STEM as role models and demonstrate the importance of gender equality in the design of digital solutions and services and policy responses.

Second, support skill-building, research and innovation by expanding STEM skills opportunities for women across a wide range of education levels and institutions, while advocating for and profiling research and development led by women in STEM fields.

Third, foster women’s entrepreneurship with support for web-based networks and platforms to mentor new entrepreneurs. This includes increasing access to capital with digital finance options and lowering start-up costs.

Finally, gender equality in STEM fields is part of the larger and still elusive goal of workplace equality. Both will benefit from policies that actively promote equal workplace opportunity and transparent hiring and remuneration, combat sexual harassment, and support social policy and workplace measures for flexible work and quality, affordable childcare and eldercare.

In the Western Balkans, women hold only 14% of STEM jobs and even fewer women occupy management roles or roles in the fastest growing and most lucrative information and communications technology subsectors.

Let us unleash their power to realise the full economic potential of the Balkan region.

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