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OWSD NIGERIA NATIONAL CHAPTER PRESENTS STEM Women: Co-creating our Collective Future

April 22, 2022

OWSD Nigeria National Chapter University of PortHarcourt Branch Series of Scientific Communications: ELIANE UBALIJORO on STEM Women: Co-creating our Collective Future

STEM Women: Co-creating our Collective Future

Eliane Ubalijoro, PhD

Global Hub Director, Canada, Future Earth

Executive Director, Sustainability in the Digital Age

Professor of Practice For Public-Private Sector Partnerships, Institute for the Study in International Development, McGill University


Women, agriculture, smallholder farmers, africa, climate change, gender, empower, world, female, space, engage


It is critical to realize the importance of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at this time when all of humanity must collectively contribute to addressing the many challenges we are facing in the 21st century. As we navigate the last two years of the pandemic, we continue to face challenges brought on not only by COVID-19 but also by climate change acceleration, social justice inequities, and increased warfare now amplifying food security crises globally.

We are in a pivotally defining moment for humanity. Bringing our collective intelligence to co-create a future of dignity for all will require we ensure equal access to opportunities for all. This matters because we are neglecting half the global population who are living in poverty and who have no internet access. We need the power of all working together to innovate for a collective sustainable future that serves the greater good. The urgency is only getting greater as we head towards 2030. If by then, we are unable to maintain the average temperature of the planet within 1.5-2 degrees Celsius, we know that the catastrophic consequences will be terrible for all of humanity. We also know that if women are absent from the innovation space, their lived experiences, challenges, and dreams are likely to be excluded in the design of research products and services that most matter to them. According to billionaire and founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma[1], “if you want your company to be successful, if you want your company to operate with wisdom with care, then women are the best”. Many pioneering women are working to address the wicked challenges of the 21st century. Whether it is the work of Kate Raworth looking at how should we live within planetary boundaries using the framework of Doughnut Economics, Wangari Maathai’s legacy of spearheading the planting of billions of trees, or Carlota Perez asking us to co-design the 5th industrial revolution as green and sustainable, it is important to realize that a safe and just corridor for humanity is urgently needed. 

Thriving collectively requires operating with a viable foundation that takes into account both growing social good and living within an ecological ceiling. We must find ways to take care of access to water, food, energy networks, housing, gender equality, social equality, political voice, peace, justice, income, education, and health for all. Shortfalls in any of these connected spaces create a crisis in terms of a safe and just future for humanity. At the same time, living within planetary boundaries requires we address ocean acidification, climate change, ozone layer depletion, air pollution, biodiversity loss, land conversion, freshwater withdrawals, nitrogen, and phosphorus loading as well as chemical pollution. All represent scientific challenges and opportunities to innovate to ensure we can live within a safe corridor.  

Women – most vulnerable to climate change, most impactful leaders

Women bear the brunt of the climate crisis as they represent about 80% of the people displaced by climate change according to UNDP[2] 2019 study. Women are also disadvantaged because only 3% of climate finance addresses gender equality as a primary target. In terms of global connectivity, men are 21% more likely than women to have internet access. The numbers rise to 52 percent, in the least developed countries. Why is that critical? We live in an interconnected world that is more and more digitally driven. For many, an internet connection has been the difference between working, studying, identifying the next opportunity in their lives, or being left on the sidelines of growth. Access to local and global markets as well as the global capacity to learn, engage and exchange globally requires digital connectivity. Whether you are a female smallholder farmer or a head of state, we all yearn to scale our capacity to communicate, influence, and share our messages, services, and products to a wider audience. In the case of women who experience the consequences of climate change more severely, their leadership in developing coping strategies, innovating, and building the needed resilience to mitigate and adopt are essential sources of wisdom that must be tapped into. As nationally determined contributions toward the Paris Agreement continue to be refined, there are many opportunities for governments and investors to build gender-responsive approaches to climate change. That will not only strengthen environmental outcomes but also open up business, technical, and social innovation opportunities that can improve lives for women and future generations worldwide.

Because climate change is interlinked with many of the issues we're facing right now, there is an urgency for women's participation more than ever in our current VUCA world. It is time to all work together to flip Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity to Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. This flip needs to engage particularly African women in STEM to address the many challenges the IPCC[3] 2022 Africa report highlights. This includes decreased food productivity due to climate change over the last 50 years while pressures on land from population growth increase all over the continent. We are also set to have 50 % of the world’s workforce be African by 2030. Because women's leadership is often ethical, creative, and compassionate, it is critical that they are equipped to lead in this VUCA world we are in, to face the turbulence that continues to come at us through the pandemic.

By creating spaces where it is safe for all of us to courageously attempt to address all our current grand challenges, we can have the freedom to fail, learn, iterate and move forward in a wiser and more resilient, fashion. We can work, discover, prototype, and bring to market new services and products that are critical to a sustainable future. To grow Africa sustainably for the 21st century, we need to address neglected tropical diseases, crop diversity and resilience, and social challenges for a growing population that will bring into the world half the births expected on the planet between now and 2050. As we bridge the leadership gap and pipeline leakage of women in science and technology, we can make these dreams not only possible but a certainty. Only then can we truly mother the planet and humanity.

Empowering Educated Girls

The participation of women on the continent to bring about the solutions to the many challenges we face is urgent. This will require the knowledge of STEM experts combined with the creativity and ingenuity of the Arts. This requires not only empowering women but also empowering girls. Empowering girls’ education in Africa can result in 1.8 billion people less than the UN median variance adjusted for 2100. This is because educated girls tend to start their families later and have fewer children but invest more in their children’s capacity to thrive and learn[4]. As we address climate change and the pressures to live within planetary boundaries, ensuring that women are able to make family planning decisions according to what they want is critical to diminishing pressures on the planet's resources and significantly reducing carbon emissions from unrestrained population growth. The current logistical, financial, and cultural barriers to access family planning are excessively burdening the most vulnerable women to climate change, the female smallholder farmer.

The more girls are educated, the later in life they start their families, and the more they are able to be equipped to help solve the solutions of the future. Africa faces many of the burdens of climate change despite being responsible for only 3.8% of greenhouse gas emissions so far[5]. Africa's carbon emissions per capita in 2008 were 6.6% of those of North America at the same time, we know that Africa has 60% of the world's uncultivated arable land and 26% of the global plant diversity. The female share of the agricultural labor force in Africa is the highest in the world while smallholder farmers produce 80% of the food grown on the continent. Harnessing Africa's food production capacity sustainably could turn the continent’s expected import food bill of 110 billion per year by 2025[6] into investment in local sustainable food systems.  If we invested in increasing the sustainable productivity of agriculture in Africa, increasing the empowerment of these female smallholder farmers, and accelerating research in regenerative farming, for better climate-resilient crops and production systems, we could transform African economies and establish the needed growth mindset to bring about the needed transformational change to safely reach 2030 within planetary boundaries. The power of STEM expertise to help us not only solve this climate crisis but also solve the continued food crisis requires we accelerate the integration of women more effectively. This can be achieved by designing the solutions for the future, connecting to markets, and women driving trade in rural and urban areas by leveraging technological and financial tools. This allows goods, services, and money to flow and empower families.

Impact on economies

According to the African Human Development Report, gender inequality is costing Sub-Saharan Africa around $100 billion per year. Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that increasing the share of women in leadership positions from zero to 30% translates into 15% boost in profitability[7]. All these factors increase the urgency to scale women in all places of power around the world. Women’s leadership and scientific undertakings will be critical in designing, piloting, and scaling African circular economies that respect the environment. Only by working inclusively can we mitigate climate change and create continent-wide interconnected economic prosperity that promotes peace and safe circulation of people, wildlife, knowledge, and goods.  We know that the next billionaires in Africa over the next decades are going to come from competitively advancing our capacity to accelerate sustainable food security on the continent and accelerate Food Transformation, post-harvest management, logistics, and circulation of safe and highly nutritious food across the continent. According to the Malabo Declaration, there are a number of indicators that African countries should monitor continuously to be making better decisions. We need to collect high-quality historical and real-time data, to better understand the roles that women take in agriculture. The more we can do that, the more we can de-risk the financial investments needed to support female smallholders and women entrepreneurs in the agribusiness space to really be empowered to help us not only achieve food security but also ensure adequate nutrition for all.

Seventh Generation principle and masculine allies

Indigenous Iroquois elders speak of the seventh generation principle based on the ancient Haudenosaunee philosophy[8]. The principle dictates that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations in the future. The only way to make that possible is really to engage women more effectively so that they are the solution makers of the future. Only with equity in opportunity and action can we advance and solve not only the issues we're facing right now but also the ones to come.

What will this take? Ending gender stereotypes requires not only the girl child to own her power, we need to empower the boy child to be a powerful ally so together they can work to build agendas that promote gender equality and allow the girl child to flourish. This can help us break gender biases. By eliminating toxic masculinity from the root, we can elevate the best of masculine energy in terms of empowering women, being supportive and complementary partners, and serving others. We can truly live the highest level of civilization by ensuring the most vulnerable are supported and protected. In a world where it will take 200 years for pay equity to be reached between men and women, campaigns like HeforShe are critical for the needed systems change. We also need parents to be more aware of the gender stereotyping that happens very young, in schools, how to break those biases early that limit a girl's capacity to explore, be curious, to interact with the natural world from the age of three onwards. We also need to support school systems that engage girls and women in ways that allow safety and excitement to deepen interest in STEM. We also need to make it safe for girls to compete and win safely and fairly. We need systems that don’t stigmatize smart girls. In our digital world, the power of access, and capacity to build prosperity require empowering women to be connected. When women have access to a cell phone, when they have access to data around weather, when they have access to market and technical information, to seeds as well as to adequate inputs that can help them be more productive and be more knowledge-intensive in how they work in agriculture, their incomes increase on average by 30%.  A connected female smallholder farmer is an empowered female smallholder farmer. The more we connect rural female smallholder farmers to markets, the more we de-risk their capacity to raise more funds by valuing their knowledge acquisition, production, and financial intelligence, creating a trusted record of their credit capacity even at a micro-level.

Marginalized populations must be at the center in order to ensure inclusive innovations that truly leverage and nourish our interconnectedness. They must be generators, owners, and stewards of the data we need to scale effective decision-making for a bright collective future. With this data in hand, we need STEM women leaders to help build the enabling policy frameworks to advance prosperous female entrepreneurship. We need economies that serve and understand not only the tastes and desires of women in terms of what they want to feed their households, but also the urgent need for high-quality safe food produced sustainably.

Going from STEM to STEAM

Our problem today is scientists have failed to harness the arts to accelerate social engagement and social movements to help us scale the work ahead to achieve the sustainable development goals. Change requires social movements to succeed. Only when STEM turns into STEAM, engaging the arts, can we truly engage people, heart, mind, body, and soul. For example, the power of music is something we can harness to scale literacy through edutainment. The power of art is its capacity to playfully and skillfully help us dream of the future. In harmony with STEM, Art can be a powerful tool to co-creating our collective future.


[1] Jack Ma (2018). Jack Ma on the IQ of love - and other top quotes from his Davos interview.

[2] UNDO (2019). Overview of linkages between gender and climate change.

[3] IPCC (2022). Fact sheet - Africa Climate Change Impacts and Risks.

[4] Homi Kharas (2016). Climate change, fertility and girls’ education.

[6] Richard Mahapatra (2017). A grain revolution for Africa.

[7] Justin Trudeau (2018). 10 Davos stories you might have missed: Justin Trudeau told Davos to put women first.

[8] Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., (2020). What is the Seventh Generation Principle?

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