From STEM to Security: Why More Women in Science is a Foreign Policy Imperative

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Written by Rebecca Turkington and Rebecca Hughes

Although global gender gaps in education and labor force participation have narrowed significantly in recent years, some discrepancies have refused to budge. Women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) remains stubbornly low around the world. Globally, women represent only 35 percent of higher education STEM students, and hold barely 5 percent of leadership positions in the tech industry. Research shows that increasing the numbers of women in STEM fields can drive growth in economies around the world, and is likely to make technological innovation more inclusive and responsive. Yet, one area where women’s participation has not received significant attention is at the juncture of STEM and foreign policy. Some of today’s most persistent global challenges—from nuclear policy to climate change—require diverse input from the STEM community. In honor of International Day of Women and Girls in Science we highlight women and girls working at intersection of policy and science to advance a more stable and peaceful world.

Nuclear Policy

Women have always played an important role in promoting peace, security, and stability, and the field of nuclear security is no different. One path-breaking woman is Shirley Ann Jackson, who completed her doctorate in particle physics in 1973; the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She served as the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association. In 2016, she became the first African-American woman to be awarded the National Medal of Science. During the Iran nuclear negotiations Federica Mogherini, the EU’s chief diplomat, Helga Schmid, Mogherini’s deputy, Wendy Sherman, a top U.S. State Department official, and Catherine Ashton, the previous EU foreign policy chief, were unable to shake hands with their Iranian interlocutors. Nevertheless, their political acumen, technical knowledge, and diligence secured the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan. Since its inception, women have contributed to the field of nuclear science. Dr. Lise Meitner, a Jewish Austrian physicist, helped discover and explain nuclear fission. Meitner recognized the explosive potential of this process and was invited to work on the Manhattan Project. She refused, declaring, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”

Global Health Security

Infectious disease has been part of America’s foreign policy agenda for decades, and each new epidemic highlights the growing importance of global health security. One of the foremost experts on this global challenge is science journalist Laurie Garrett. Winner of journalism’s three most prestigious prizes—the Peabody, Polk and Pulitzer—Garrett writes on the intersections of security and infectious disease, bioterrorism and public health. Dr. Sara Davies, a researcher on health diplomacy and global health governance, brings a gender lens to understanding disease outbreak and management, noting that women face a disproportionate burden during complex health emergencies like Ebola and Zika. Women are also leading on the policy front. Dr. Margaret Chan oversaw global efforts to address the spread of disease for more than a decade as the Director-General of the World Health Organization. She was appointed to the role after her success in Hong Kong battling outbreaks of the H5N1 virus and SARS. And on the ground, women are often the invisible frontline against the spread of disease. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, women’s traditional roles caring for the sick and preparing bodies for burial put them at great risk, but also meant they represented the vanguard of community response.

Climate Change

Climate change is inarguably one of the biggest issues facing world leaders, and women and girls around the world are leveraging their knowledge and skills to address it. In 2015, Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief, was tasked with developing an international response to global warming. The result was the Paris Climate Agreement, a landmark accord that nearly every nation in the world signed. Developed and developing nations alike committed to reducing carbon emissions in order to avert the worst effects of climate change. Adults aren’t the only ones working to save planet. In 2018, then-fifteen year-old Greta Thunberg launched a solitary picket outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm, demanding radical and immediate action on climate change. Her act of civil disobedience helped inspire the mass student protest movement that is sweeping across Europe. The movement is led almost entirely by teenage girls, and highlights not only the urgent need to address climate change but also the powerful organizing potential of young women.

Technology

Artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming foreign and security policy in ways unforeseen even five years ago. As weapons become increasingly autonomous, women are leading efforts to build global consensus about how AI will shape war. Mary Wareham, global coordinator of the candidly-named “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots,” has worked for decades advocating to curtail the use of weapons that threaten civilians. She now leads a coalition of 93 NGOs across 53 countries striving to create a binding global compact that ensures “meaningful human control” over autonomous weapons systems. Women have been at the forefront of innovation in the defense sector since the very beginnings of computer technology. Dr. Grace Hopper—a naval officer, mathematician, and one of the first three computer programmers in history—pioneered word-based programming languages, opening up the world of coding to a wider community of users. Another critical innovator in defense technology was actress Hedy Lamarr, who patented a system of ‘frequency hopping’ to guide torpedoes while preventing radio interception in 1942. Though not used by the Navy in WWII, her idea later provided the basis for the technology undergirding Wifi, GPS and Bluetooth.

The Way Forward

The women highlighted here represent only a small fraction of those who have worked at the juncture of science and foreign policy, but global statistics tell a worrying story. In the United States and much of the world, both the STEM and foreign policy communities remain overwhelming white and male. This lack of diversity ultimately limits these communities’ ability to innovate and weakens global response to the most critical challenges of our times. When women have the educational and leadership opportunities to pursue careers in STEM, they have influenced the development of policies, programs, and inventions that have changed our world. We cannot afford to leave the talent and contributions of half the world’s population on the table. Advancing women’s participation in STEM to ensure a new generation of female scientists follows in the footsteps of these pioneers is a national security and moral imperative.

About the authors: Rebecca Turkington is assistant director of the women and foreign policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Rebecca Hughes is a research associate with the women and foreign policy program at CFR.