Since Barbie was created by Ruth Handler in 1959, Barbie has continually broken boundaries by making her mark in numerous high-profile careers. In 1965, Barbie’s manufacturer, Mattel, sent her to space; in 1985 Barbie became a CEO; and in 1992 she even ran for U.S. President. That’s an impressive curriculum vitae for anyone!
Yet Barbie did not become a “scientist” until less than a decade ago, in 2015.* While the debate around Barbie’s balance of being conventional yet progressive remains ongoing, as highlighted in the blockbuster 2023 movie directed by Greta Gerwig, the delay in launching a “Scientist Barbie” demonstrates the continued need to encourage women and girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)—and why days like the International Day of Women and Girls in Science are necessary.
During the same year “Scientist Barbie” was released, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 70/212, titled International Day of Women and Girls in Science. According to the resolution, the annual observation on February 11 intends to raise awareness of and promote the full and equal participation of women and girls education, training, employment and decision-making processes in the sciences. The day is also a call to eliminate all discrimination against women and ensure women can overcome legal, economic, social, and cultural barriers. Finally, the day is meant to promote the importance of science education policies, programs, and careers.
According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, only 30% of global researchers are women. Although the percentage of women in STEM fields is increasing (see graph on right), disparities continue to exist in publishing, equal pay, and career advancement. The percentage of women in STEM is almost the same as the percentage of global researchers (29.2%), even though women make up almost half of total employment across all sectors.
This gap continues in educational obtainment, which may be a factor in the gender divide in research. Many women never pursue a PhD, a reality referred to as the leaky pipeline; many women drop out of the academic pipeline, especially in STEM, for various reasons including grueling schedules and starting and rearing a family. Recent developments in online learning have allowed for more flexibility in schedules for women, but that newfound flexibility has not closed the gender gap. An Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2018 report noted that approximately 26% of women are less likely to have a smartphone than their male counterparts. This percentage is higher in South Asia and Africa, with 70% and 34%, respectively, of women not having a smartphone compared to men.
CGIAR supports gender, diversity, and inclusion (GDI), especially within the CGIAR Independent Advisory and Evaluation Service (IAES) and the two independent bodies it supports—the Independent Science for Development Council (ISDC) and the Standing Panel on Impact Assessment (SPIA)—which facilitate and provide external, impartial, and expert advice related to strategy and positioning, program evaluation, and impact assessment for CGIAR. ISDC consists of eight experts (63% female) in science and development subject matters that provide rigorous, independent, strategic advice to System Council, the CGIAR funders. SPIA comprises six experts (50% female) in impact assessment subject matter.
“Scientist Barbie,” delayed as she was, could be a terrific inspiration for young women to pursue the sciences. But we also have these esteemed women on ISDC and SPIA who can provide advice and guidance on not just their research, but how to build a sustained and impactful career in the scientific world. As we commemorate International Day of Women and Girls in Science and all that it promotes, let’s work with our incredible STEM women to help turn the goals of the day into reality.
- “‘No’ is not an answer, but a challenge. Make a difference, excel, and let your success be the voice that echoes, inspiring others.” Fetien Abay, ISDC Member & Professor, Plant Breeding and Seed, Mekelle University, Ethiopia
- “If you vibrate and dream of science or engineering, if you feel that no other career will make you feel complete, or if nothing compares with the sensation of analyzing a process, do not let others dictate what you can or cannot do, go with your dreams, and follow the steps of our female ancestors, who fought for us to be here. Be sure that there is nothing more satisfactory than doing what you really love.” Magali Garcia, ISDC Member & Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Engineering, Universidad Mayor de San Andres, Bolivia
- “This quote by Maya Angelou inspires me during bleak and trying times, and embodies women in general: ‘I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.’” Suneetha Kadiyala, ISDC Member & Professor of Global Nutrition, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK
- "My scientific journey is one of resilience and determination, shaped by the challenges while growing up in a South African township and driven by the pursuit of a better future. Like the branches of a baobab tree, let the wisdom of our daughters and sisters spread across the vast landscape of STEM fields. Embrace opportunities, explore, discover, and lead for positive change in our villages and the world." Nompumelelo H. Obokoh, PhD, ISDC Vice Chair & CEO, South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP), South Africa
- “I have been fortunate to have had a long career in science R&D, which has been truly rewarding. I have learned much, met many inspiring people, travelled the world, experienced different cultures, visited wonderful places and made many friends. I would encourage anyone who has a passion for science and who wants to learn new things to get involved, even if after a year or so you decide it is not for you, you will have gained from the experience.” Lesley Torrance, ISDC member & Director of Science at the James Hutton Institute and Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of St Andrews, UK
- “If you say no to doing something optional that will add more stress than joy to your life, know that you don't have to bend over backwards apologizing. Or worry about what the other person will think. Ultimately the person you must live with is you. And as someone once said to me—'The other person will survive.’” Sujata Visaria, SPIA Member, Reader, Bayes Business School, City, University of London, and Associate Professor of Economics, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong SAR
*Note that many of the more than 250 careers Barbie has had since her creation in 1959 had science at their core (e.g., paleontologist in 1995), but “Scientist Barbie” launched in 2015. In 2016 Mattel released “Farmer Barbie,” which was science-based with the packaging including: “Many farmers study agriculture in college. They learn all kinds of things like dairy science, animal science, and agricultural economics.”