Women account for over 43 per cent of all Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates in India, one of the highest in the world, according to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report 2019-20. However, just 14 per cent of them pursue scientific research in universities and institutions.
Professor Chandrima Shaha, a biologist and the first woman president of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), has witnessed a few changes over the decades and believes that a transformation is on its way but we are yet to make “enough effort” to mend the skewed gender ratio in the STEM field.
Talking to indianexpress.com, Dr. Shaha said, “When I enrolled for a PhD degree in 1980 there were very few women who were pursuing science or any degree in STEM education. One of the many reasons were family and societal pressure, lack of awareness and post-marriage responsibilities. But over the years I am witnessing big changes. Women are aware of their capabilities, they want to learn and grow, especially in the urban and semi-urban areas of the country.”
Two significant challenges stand out when it comes to women’s under-representation in STEM in India. The first concerns women’s entry into and retention in science in higher education, while the second involves variations in career attainment between men and women candidates in STEM in the country, with women displaying lower levels of attainment than their male counterparts.
STEM stereotypically inappropriate for women
In a survey conducted by edtech platform Avishkaar, it was found that 50 per cent of parents said societal pressures are one of the main reasons why they don’t encourage their daughters to pursue STEM while 42 per cent felt parents’ influence plays a role. And 30 per cent of parents even said that the work environment in India in these fields is more suitable for men than women.
Dr. Bimlesh Lochab, a scientist in the field of Green Chemistry, said in India certain subjects are considered stereotypically appropriate for one gender, without any scientific basis.
“STEM occupations are frequently perceived as masculine, and teachers and parents frequently undervalue girls’ ability beginning in kindergarten. This frequently causes a confidence gap in young females, who become more critical of their abilities and hold them to higher standards as a result,” Lochab pointed out.
Indian mathematician and Ramanujan Prize 2021 winner Neena Gupta shared that Mathematics has been her favourite subject since childhood but she was discouraged by her family for a long time. However, till very late, she had no idea that she could even pursue a degree let alone have a career in mathematics. “The initial idea instituted in me was to get a decent degree and get married. That’s what my family had taught me till the time I was in college. But once they realised my interest in the subject, they motivated me to continue pursuing my interest,” Gupta said.
Need for women role models in STEM
The survey conducted by Avishkar also showed that 95 per cent of children, including girls, recall male role models as their inspiration in STEM fields, highlighting the urgent need to increase the exposure around women role models.
Vani Sood, HOD of Biology at Vedantu, said young girls are aware and more fierce about their career choices but lack awareness about the path they should take to follow their goal.
“We need to present women role models to the younger generation at district levels, state levels where they see and know what heights they can achieve by pursuing STEM education. Mentorship programmes should be introduced in schools, where successful alumni mentor these kids on career development. Social media can also be roped in to promote women in science that can encourage young girls to choose their careers confidently,” Sood suggested.
Shaha of INSA also stated the need for women role models pointing out that society has to stop defining these roles in terms of gender. “Even today, it is called ‘woman scientist’ and not ‘scientist as a woman’. There is a need for gender sensitisation at the school level. Careers should be promoted as gender-neutral roles,” Shaha emphasised.
Better facilities for women in STEM workspaces
The Global Gender Gap Report by World Economic Forum released in March 2021 shows that only 29.2 per cent of technical roles are held by women in India; in fact, India has fallen 28 places in its ranking to 140. Despite the fact that the number of women enrolled in STEM programmes has increased over the years, the increased education levels have not translated into increased employability or career opportunities.
Along the STEM career spectrum, women continue to experience feelings of inadequacy and not fitting in. In India, women, in particular, quit their jobs in the middle of their careers, owing to the dual stress of combining work and family obligations. According to a NITI Aayog poll of women in science, 30 per cent of them believe their careers have harmed their family commitments and household responsibilities. In addition, 47 per cent of respondents mentioned family responsibilities as a factor for declining a demanding job position.
“In order to create a more appealing and welcoming atmosphere for women in STEM, organisations should take a top-down, multi-pronged strategy. More women-friendly environment, facilities of a creche, period leaves, maternity leaves should be induced in the working system,” Sood from Vedantu suggested.
A 2016-17 NITI Aayog report, designed to understand the reasons behind the loss of trained women scientists also found that to be able to work longer in STEM, they expect age relaxation in eligibility criteria, an extension of benefits like housing, transport, and medical help, as well as flexibility in their job contracts that allows them more work-life flexibility.
“Career breaks need to be accommodated, as women scientists have dual commitments. Seniority based on the total number of years of work experience or service rather than continuous service may help to retain talent and experience by allowing for re-entry of women scientists, which would otherwise be lost permanently,” the report said.
Change on its way
Even though experts point at various reasons for lower women’s participation in the STEM field, they are also hopeful about the changes being witnessed in the recent and upcoming years.
Talking about the general notion, where it is believed that boys usually do better in calculative subjects than girls, mathematician Neena Gupta said that the trend is changing now. “Earlier during my post-graduation, I was the only girl in my class. But now when I am a professor, I see more women pursuing the maths field. One reason could be awareness among youth as well as parents who now give opportunities to their daughters to pursue their interests,” she said.
Validating her statement is another example of a class 11 student from Gujarat, Palak Kale. The 17-year-old has developed a solar tree that consumes 1% of the land surface as compared to traditional solar panel placements while generating the same amount of energy developed by Solar SPV.
A student of a Marathi-medium school, Palak was worried about the greenhouse effect and the downtrodden condition of electricity facilities in her village. With the help of Shell’s global STEM Education program – NXplorers, Palak got the right guidance, support and raw material to bring her ideation into reality.
Talking to indianexpress.com, the young science enthusiast said, “The idea of developing a solar tree came to my mind in class 9 when I got aware about global warming in my science class. I developed this tree with the help of my teachers. I want to do more research work in science when I grow up and want to become a scientist.”
There are many other young minds like Kale who are just seeking a chance to showcase their capabilities. Experts said given the critical role of technology in future growth and innovation, programmes targeted at training and keeping women in STEM fields must be supported. They also said that giving women equal opportunity would not only help close the gender wage gap at the workplace, but will also improve their financial security and well-being