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Speeches & Transcripts March 8, 2018

Make what’s next – a discussion on International Women’s Day to encourage young girls to take up STEM

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Distinguished guests, mothers and my dear girls!

This is my second year in Sri Lanka celebrating International Women’s Day. Every year the World Bank receives many invitations to participate in Women’s Day events, but when I heard I would have the opportunity to meet Sri Lankan mothers and daughters, I accepted in a heartbeat. Thank you, Microsoft team, for the invitation and the opportunity to address these wonderful young people who hold the key to Sri Lanka’s future. 

I am standing here before you as a mother of two girls; one in university and another about to leave home for university. My girls are just like you - they too are dreaming of careers in science and technology.  And I, as many mothers sitting in this room will likely have done; I have started to worry.  Will she be safe, will she like the University, will she remember to call home and come for holidays?  But not once does the question of whether she should go cross my mind.  This is what she and us have been working for, for the last 18 years.  It’s her turn to go out and be a productive woman who takes her place in the work force when schooling is done.

Just like every mother here, I also have a dream to see my girls do well in life. As parents, we are entrusted with a responsibility of becoming role models from the day they are born, as well as the guardians of their future. Fathers too. But today its about the girls and their mothers. 

Women who have achieved success in their lives, particularly in the science based professions have done so because of their love of science; hard work, self-discipline and inner strength. In my case, I couldn’t have done it without my parents; and my mother who reminded me always that success is earned.   My father was the relief valve that reduced the pressure that my mom exerted, but more importantly that I exerted on myself given my desire to do my best.  I also had mentors.

So, this evening, I stand here before you as a cheerleader; knowledge sharer and mentor.  I may occasionally weave in something about me and my family; but only to make a point.  This evening is about all you young women in the room.   It’s about celebrating and encouraging young girls to take up careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  Often, I tell girls that even when they don’t think that they are good at these subjects, they use them in their daily life.    In the supermarket when one pays at the cashier they instinctively calculate the balance to be received - that is a STEM thought. When a doctor prescribes medications and one decides to go on line to research to understand what the active ingredients in the drug is -  that is a STEM thought. Critical thinking and the ability to solve problems are at the core of STEM.  I contend that inherently we are all scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, to a degree.   What makes the young women in this room special is that you are pursuing STEM to a higher degree.

Twenty years ago, who could have imagined what technology would look like today?  Lets take the telephone as an example.  Who could have imagined that the phone that began as device where your neighbors quite brazenly listened into your conversations through what they called the party line.  I know, most of you millennials don’t even know what that is.  The phone on the wall has evolved into a little box that connects you to your friends and family via voice command.  A box that can at any given moment give you news of the furthest place on earth where you have never been, and probably will never visit.  This has transpired because someone imagined it; because someone was ambitious enough to try.  Few failures did not deter them. 

You, young ladies are those visionaries of tomorrow.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.   Let your imagination, critical thinking and analytical curiosity loose and you will be surprised at what you can achieve.  I don’t think that Marie Curie when she discovered Polonium and Radium. ever imagined the potential impact she would have on medicine and on people’s lives.

As I alluded to earlier my girls have selected science as their future and aspire to study medicine and neuroscience. My husband and I, both having backgrounds in science, took a keen interest in exposing our daughters to the world outside. We wanted them to learn how to think critically. We took them on family trips to the botanical gardens so they could see caterpillars turn into butterflies; we went on train journeys, where they understood something of how trains operate by watching the contact between the wheels of the train and the rail tracks. We were keen to show them that the world runs on science.  I suspect that all you parents in the room have been crafting your own journeys for these girls; building their curiosity and shoring them up when they needed it. 

In Sri Lanka, there are more women in higher education than men; but when you dissect the numbers, the girls are not taking STEM subjects in adequate numbers. And there are less women in paid employment.  On the other hand, life expectancy has risen, 78 and 72 years for women and men respectively.  In the decades to come a large share of Sri Lanka’s population will be above 60 years. Sri Lanka is getting old before getting rich.  This demographic will further impact family lives and women’s opportunities to be part of the working force.  This trend, left unchecked will mean more seniors will necessarily be poorer in their old age as savings will be lower. 

 The ageing trend is not unique to Sri Lanka.  Japan, and many countries in Europe have fewer births when compared to those ageing.  To compensate, they are skilling their population – regardless of gender and investing in technology.  This is the trajectory Sri Lanka needs to take.  You are Sri Lanka’s future.  So, how ambitious and determined are you?   How willing are you to respond to this year’s Women’s day campaign and #PressforProgress. 

We at the World Bank are keen to participate in #PressforProgress and see more women get into safe and fair employment and we invite you all to join us.  We applaud organizations such as Microsoft, and others that are making digital learning platforms available to schools making self-learning possible.  I read with interest about how the smart school concept is helping schools to improve student learning outcomes using Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Today the role of the teacher and parent is changing – as technology evolves rapidly, we can’t teach our kids everything in a classroom but we can give them the skills and the tools so they can teach themselves and stay updated. This is something within our control as students, teachers, parents and school communities to take charge and make a difference.

I hope you will all participate in our exciting competition on “Who is your role model?” This could be your mother, your teacher or someone who has inspired you and encouraged you to advance in your life’s journey.

So, let me end by thanking the organizers of this event, Microsoft for putting on this event and contributing to PressforProgress. A special thanks to all you wonderful young ladies and their mothers for not only being here but for making the event what it is.  A celebration of girls in STEM. 

Happy Women’s Day!