For over a century, women’s organizations—whether informal or well-established; whether local, regional, national, or international—have played a valuable role in raising women scientists’ and engineers’ profiles and in bringing to light the problems they face in environments dominated by men. At the more informal levels, small groups of women from professional societies and learned institutions have met to network, support each other, and influence the policies of their employers.
More formally organized national entities assist local and regional networking groups by offering resources such as mentoring schemes, management training, and technical presentations. In addition, volunteers regularly visit local schools to offer advice for aspiring science and engineering students and to help provide role models. These organizations are often funded by membership subscriptions or grants from institutions, companies, or professional bodies. Some of these groups have gone further by publishing newsletters, maintaining websites, and convening symposia.
The Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering extends women’s professional ties by helping them develop networks of colleagues (www.sawise.org.za). The Third World Organization for Women in Science (TWOWS), the world’s largest organization of women scientists, aims to improve the status of women within the scientific community and provides opportunities for women to assume leadership roles in society. The TWOWS also provides graduate training fellowships for women scientists in Sub-Saharan Africa and other countries in early development. A publication on women leaders in developing countries highlights how women scientists in key positions have affected S&T issues internationally. Many TWOWS activities are readily replicable (www.twows.org).
Meanwhile, the work of the Helsinki Group—a team of policymakers, social scientists, and physical scientists coordinated by the European Commission ’s Women and Science Unit —has had international reach, aided by the cooperation and support of member states. A variety of Helsinki Group reports and activities have brought together a wealth of comparative data (Rees, 2002), identified issues, specified good management practices, and widened participation. For example, A Wake-Up Call for European Industry (Rees, 2003) drew private-sector research organizations into the arena.
International conferences have also had significant impact, sometimes evolving into permanent entities. For example, leaders of the International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists —a meeting that brings numerous stakeholders together every four years—recently formed the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists (INWES). The 2002 and 2005 Women in Physics conferences, organized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), have also been influential by focusing on a particular field that in many countries is still characterized by the virtual absence of women (Hartline and Li, 2002; Hartline and Michelman-Ribeiro, 2005). Faculty and students from over 60 countries have expressed their views at these conferences and made detailed recommendations for virtually all aspects of attracting, retaining, and promoting women physicists.
But the ‘mother’ of all international meetings in this domain was the United Nations’ 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing and attended by over 20,000 participants. While the Conference focused on the rights of women to acquire education, economic power, inclusion in leadership, and involvement in decision making across diverse professional fields, its resulting Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action made specific reference to women in science and engineering (United Nations, 1995). These latter provisions spawned a number of actions, including a special study by the European Technology Assessment Network (ETAN) that resulted in the report Science Policies in the European Union: Promoting Excellence through Mainstreaming Gender Equality (Osborn et al ., 2000). However, at the 10-year review of the Beijing meeting, held in 2005 in New York, the only reference to women in science and technology was in relation to information technology (United Nations, 2005).
The United Nations has deployed numerous initiatives related to the education of girls and to the careers of women in science and technology. These include the Gender Advisory Board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD) and the Board’s global network; UNESCO’s regional chairs of Women, Science, and Technology, such as the one for Latin America (www.catunescomujer.org); and the establishment of African and other international networks for women scientists and engineers. Arab women in science and technology are being empowered by the Arab Network for Women in Science, under the aegis of UNESCO. Another UNESCO initiative, a joint venture with the Paris-based company L’Oréal, annually honours both young and senior women scientists around the globe. In several countries, L’Oréal national branch offices give grants to women scientists early in their careers.
Members of the IAC