The Gender Summits are a series of interconnected conferences held all over the world to bring together scientists from all disciplines; policymakers; and gender equality experts to discuss ways of advancing the cause of gender equality, especially in the sciences.
These are international summits, and each meeting seeks to build upon the dialogue and consensus of the previous meeting. The first summit was held in 2011 in Europe, with other summits held in North America and Africa. Korea will be hosting Gender Summit 6 – Asia Pacific 2015 from August 26 to 28 with the theme of “Better Science & Technology for Creative Economy: Enhancing Societal Impact through Gendered Innovations in Research, Development and Business.”
One of the keynote speeches will be delivered by Prof. Geri Richmond, a highly regarded chemist noted for her work on complex surface chemistry. She is currently the Presidential Chair in Science and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon. In 2014, she became the U.S. Science Envoy for the Lower Mekong River countries by appointment of the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as part of President Obama’s initiative to strengthen the United States’ science and education relationships overseas.
She has served on numerous science boards and advisory panels and has testified on science issues before committees in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Oregon House of Representatives.
Korea IT Times was able to ask her a few questions ahead of Gender Summit 6. When asked about whether she had any concerns about the summit, she indicated regret at not being able to spend more time at the meetings. Despite her busy schedule – or perhaps because of it –it is clear that Prof. Richmond is committed to enhancing the presence of women in science and technology.
Q: This seems to be a particularly relevant time in Korea for discourses on gender, as mixed signals abound in Korean culture and society. What do you hope to achieve at the Gender Summit in Seoul
A: I agree that it is very timely and important to have this meeting in Korea. I have visited Korea in past years and through those visits have learned abut the serious challenges that Korean women often face in attempting to follow their career aspirations in a culture that can often be in conflict with those career aspirations.
Even though this is an International Gender Summit, one of my goals in this visit is to see how I might be able to help advance the careers of Korean women in science, engineering and technology fields through successful programs in the U.S. South Korea is such a technology and economic powerhouse in the region with so many impressive companies and industries. Giving women the opportunity to be involved in the success of these companies is not only fair, but provides these companies with the diversity of ideas and leadership styles that have been shown to be of benefit to some of the most successful companies in the Fortune 500 companies.
Q: Are you looking forward to anything in particular ahead of the summit
A: I am looking forward to learning as much as I can from this Summit about the range of challenges that women face in different parts of the world and collaborating with others to develop successful programs that can be adapted to different countries and cultures.
Q: In the past few years, there has been a general worldwide trend of girls overtaking boys in school performance. This is highly observable in Korea as well. Here, both girls and boys are subject to an intense study schedule – one that focuses on math, science, and English. Given all of this, girls should have an advantage when in comes to careers in the STEM fields, but by the time girls finish high school and university, they are less enthusiastic about having careers in these fields. As a result, the STEM fields in Korea are absolutely dominated by men, even among younger generations. Based on your experience, what do you think is holding back some of these girls
A: There are a multitude of factors. Korea is not the only country where I have seen this trend. This is the case in many countries in Africa, Asia and South America in which I have worked on gender issues. That said, I believe that there are a few countries that include Korea where this problem is particularly serious. I believe that both explicit and implicit bias is a big factor.
Just as it is suggested that teachers might favor girls or certainly be supportive of girls performing highly in the younger years, different biases and cultural expectations come into play at the later years of education that can have a profound negative impact on how girls view their capabilities and career aspirations.
The low number of female role models and mentors in STEM fields also plays a huge role. Without these role models the career path ahead is not very clear, especially for the girls who mistakenly believe that you can either have a career OR family but not both.
Q: Roughly half of the population in any given country in Asia is female. Do you think there will ever be a time when roughly half of the STEM fields will be made up of women Remember, this is Asia we’re talking about. Is this possible What needs to happen in Korea and other Asian countries for this to become reality
A: I believe that it will be a long time before even the US will finally have its STEM occupation fields have the demographics that reflect the population. Probably beyond my lifetime. In some fields such as biology we do have equal numbers as in the medical fields.
However, the parity in these fields only exists at the lower career levels. In the leadership level, the numbers are disappointingly low. For other fields such as engineering, physics, computer science and math, I believe that it will take at least a decade or more to achieve parity at the post graduate level and even decades longer to have parity at the top levels in universities and companies. Where Korea is today is at least a couple of decades behind the U.S. So one can see that this will take a long time to achieve gender parity in STEM fields at the lower and higher levels. Most countries in Asia fall into that category.
How that progress can be speeded up is to learn from programs in more advanced countries that have shown to be successful and explore how such programs could be adapted to the very different cultures in Asia. Also critically important is to get leadership in your companies, government and academic institutions to truly commit to this issue and not just talk about it.
In the meantime, it is important to empower women to understand the barriers that are slowing their career progress, to develop skills to overcome those barriers and develop personal and professional networks to support and enhance their career efforts. Over the past 15 years the COACh for Women Scientists organization that I direct has been providing such training and professional skills with significant impact to women in STEM careers around the world.