For more than 20 years, UNESCO and the L’Oréal Foundation have been working together to highlight women’s contribution to science around the world. Audrey Azoulay, the Director General of UNESCO and France’s former Minister of Culture, explains how she plans to make the ‘S’ in ‘UNESCO’ (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) more open to women.
Women, an absolute priority for the UNESCO mandate
When you were appointed as the head of UNESCO last November, what did you discover about the institution’s commitments towards women in science?
First of all, let’s remember that UNESCO is the only United Nations institution that has made equality between men and women an absolute priority. And that covers every aspect of its activities – not only in science, but also in education, culture and communication. Given that context, UNESCO has continuously recognized, encouraged and highlighted the many talents that women possess. It’s an integral part of our mission, it’s in our DNA. Every day, we are fighting to change a situation where women account for less than a third of the world’s scientific community. Behind all this involvement lies a single certainty: that women’s education is a matter of fundamental human rights. Half of humanity cannot simply be left out! We are working with our partners to make young girls and women aware of their talents – and to be able to access quality education. It’s a profound issue for society; the societies in which women live need to recognize them as pioneers, as actors for change. To combat gender stereotyping, and the kind of self-censorship that leads to bias in education, we have developed a series of tools to monitor such changes.
What is the aim of the “Women in Science” program?
This program, which in our eyes is essential, helps with the recognition of women in scientific research. Our role, along with the L’Oréal Foundation, is to highlight the contributions of exceptional female researchers and to support women in their chosen vocation. Over the last 20 years, we have supported the projects of more than 3,000 women, three of whom have won a Nobel Prize. Many of them are still working with UNESCO – to help increase the number of women in science and to encourage young girls and women to find their way in the world of science.
UNESCO and the L’Oréal Foundation: The secrets of a 20-year collaboration
To what extent is your vision of women in science shared by L’Oréal?
We want to change the status quo. Today, only 3% of Nobel Prizes for science have been awarded to women, and only one woman has ever received the Fields medal for mathematics. It’s too few. We need to keep being determined to raise awareness about the vital role that scientific women play in our society, and to fight for a woman’s right to fulfil her potential in her chosen career.
To meet the big challenges of our era and to make a real impact, the partnerships that we have formed are absolutely crucial. With the L’Oréal Foundation, we can draw on the resources, know-how and skills of a major private sector corporation that operates at a global level. For its part, UNESCO brings a global network of expertise and experience of major societal challenges, such as the role of women in all aspects of life.
What is UNESCO’s practical contribution to the program?
The ‘S’ in our acronym stands for one of our specialties, unique within the institutions of the United Nations – science. What’s more, the two priorities of our mandate are gender equality and Africa. The objectives are clear!
In practical terms, we support our member states to achieve their sustainability objectives, particularly in the area of gender equality. To do that, we have vast scientific networks that we are able to harness for the “For women in science” program. It’s a way of giving the program both legitimacy and global visibility in the eyes of governments, universities and civil society in general.
Alongside the Foundation, we have just launched a new initiative to involve men from the scientific community in this fight for equality. It’s essential for men to remove the obstacles in women’s career paths, particularly when it comes to their access to senior positions, and to encourage young women to embrace the idea of a career in science.
Have you a message for the award winners?
I would like to pay tribute to the winners of this 20th edition, and to tell them they are role models for success, resilience and openness in an environment which is not favourable to them. They are symbols of courage, which the younger generation – both girls and boys – can be inspired by!