Every year the Sweden India Nobel Memorial Week celebrates the spirit of innovation and the great minds behind these scientific endeavors. This week, as we commemorated the prestigious Nobel Prize through a virtual Sweden India Nobel Memorial Week, we also debuted SHE STEM: Women Leading the Way.
SHE STEM: Women Leading the Way honors women from the fields of science and technology. It was conceived out of a pressing need to amplify the voices of women who work on cutting edge research and innovation and contribute to global sustainability efforts.
Since its inception in 1901, only 25 women have won a Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics – a distressing disparity. STEM fields are still perceived to be male dominated professions and the achievements of women in STEM are severely under-represented. Despite the fact that several top-notch scientists and innovators are women, the share of resources, including funding, they receive is minimal compared to their male counterparts. If we are to truly build a better society, especially in a post-Covid world, the need to talk about and to achieve gender equality in global innovation and sciences is more urgent than ever. We need more female Nobel Laureates to change the status quo and unleash the potential of all girls and women.
SHE STEM: Women Leading the Way is a step in that direction and an effort of bringing Sweden’s feminist foreign policy to the field of science and technology. It is also a first in many ways. Initiated by the Office of Science and Innovation, Embassy of Sweden in New Delhi, in partnership with the Atal Innovation Mission of the Government of India, this is the first time both nations have come together to hold an all-women event of eminent scientists, researchers and innovators from the fields of STEM and sustainability.
With the incredible support of Atal Innovation Mission, we held a live interaction between Swedish and Indian STEM leaders and school students from across India. The thought behind this activity was twofold; Firstly, to ignite a passion among young minds toward sciences through interactions with innovators, and secondly, to nudge a shift in gender perceptions that associate science and technology with something masculine. Additionally, we felt that students often have the most interesting questions, and we hoped an interaction with them could possibly spark new thoughts among the panelists as well.
On December 7, 2020 at 3 pm IST, as SHE STEM: Women Leading the Waywent live, thousands of viewers from across India tuned in, watching women leaders and innovators share their journey and insights on science and sustainability.
Ann Bernes, Sweden’s Ambassador for Gender Equality set the stage by calling for the need to “celebrate, recognize and make visible” achievements of women and their “trailblazing and transformative efforts that we need more of.”.
It was also an honor to have Dr Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India join us. In her address on attracting and retaining more women in STEM, she emphasized on the “responsibility to have the right policies and the right enablers in place.” Dr Swarup also spoke about building leadership among women in sciences by starting at the base and engaging with young women and girls studying sciences, in order to create a “vibrant pipeline”.
Dr Beatrice Crona, Deputy Science Director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, shared with us her work on the interconnectedness of science and sustainability. Her talk stressed on the need for ‘youth, energy and solutions-oriented thinking’ to tackle sustainability challenges, and highlighted the role of women in leading this change.
Recognizing the contribution of the youth towards innovation, we invited 16-year-old KLS Priya Varshini to share her story and inspire more girls to take an interest in technology. Priya Varshini is part of the AIM Tinkering Labs, and is building robotic solutions to help Indian farmers gauge soil and weather conditions. Girls like Priya Varshini are immensely important to change gender perceptions and biases limiting the opportunities of girls to become future leaders and Nobel Prize winners.
Women are more likely than men to prioritize helping and working with other people.[i] Likewise, women’s desire to make a social contribute is higher and companies with more women on the board are more likely to commit to ambitious climate targets. Science and technology are often conceived of as solitary occupations, further limiting women’s willingness to pursue STEM careers and take on leadership positions. It is essential to emphasize the strong link between sustainability and STEM – the opportunity to build a better and more fair future – to attract more communally oriented people to STEM, many of whom are women.
The SHE STEM: Women Leading the Way panel discussion included a stellar group of path-breakers who are at the cutting edge of AI and sustainability efforts; Environmentalist Dr Sunita Narain, Director of Centre for Science and Environment, Helana Samsioe, the Founder of Globhe, who is powering humanitarian efforts through drones, Sanskriti Dawle, Founder of Thinkerbell Labs, who has built the world’s first self-learning braille device, and Linnéa Kornehed, Co-founder of Einride, who is innovating with driverless electric trucks to make logistics more sustainable. They all provide impactful examples of the power of technology and science to contribute social, humanitarian and environmental values.
The women shared their stories on what ignited the spark that led them to join the field of STEM and sustainability. The panelists stressed on the need for filling the gender gap in STEM fields, so that future technologies are designed to be more gender sensitive and inclusive. They acknowledged the need to change the perception of science, technology and innovation being male-centric domains, through more dialogue and more support, to propel women in STEM. The school children from the AIM tinkering labs also had fascinating questions for the panelists, from the need to create an ecosystem for young women in STEM, to what goes into patenting ideas and innovations.
In 2014, Sweden became the first country in the world to adopt a feminist foreign policy. Instead of business as usual, Sweden’s feminist foreign policy seeks to be a transformative agenda that influences and changes norms and structures that hamper women and girls, as well as enhances the visibility of women and girls as actors. The implication is that we, in all parts of the Swedish Foreign Service, shall strive to strengthen all women’s and girls’ Rights, Representation and Resources, based on the Reality they live. SHE STEM: Women Leading the Way is part of this transformative agenda. Read more about Sweden’s feminist foreign policy here.
The fight against gender disparity in science and technology must be fought by all families, schools, companies and governments. It’s a fight we cannot afford to lose as women’s representation in science and technology is essential to design inclusive and sustainable societies. Over 4,900 viewers watched SHE STEM: Women Leading the Way live. For us at Office of Science and Innovation, this is a tremendously positive sign that there is a growing interest among the audience, especially students, to hear more from women who build, innovate and lead. SHE STEM: Women Leading the Way aims to be the space for women trailblazers from Sweden and India to articulate their vision towards building a better future together.
As expressed by Ann Bernes, Sweden’s Ambassador of Gender Equality: “Change is possible. YOU students will become inventors, professors, CEOs and, I am certain of it, Nobel laureates, contributing to a new normal and to a better and more sustainable world.
Fanny von Heland, Leena Kukreja, Mini Nair and Rupali Mehra (who kindly agreed to be our partner in realizing SHE STEM: Women Leading the Way and did an excellent job moderating the event)