Women in STEM fields: An Indian perspective

Many scholars and policymakers have noted that the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have remained predominantly male with historically low participation among women since their origins during the Age of Enlightenment.

India has a rich history of women scientists and mathematicians, including: Rukhmabai (India’s first practicing lady doctor, 1894); Janaki Ammal (Masters in Botany, 1925); Asima Chatterjee (doctorate in organic chemistry, 1944); Kamla Sohonie (doctorate in biochemistry, 1939); and, Rajeshwari Chatterji (degree in engineering, 1943). But despite the great opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), it has been observed that women (especially in India) are not too keen on opting for science and technology in academics or as a profession.

The “double-burden syndrome”—which makes women quit jobs mid-career, especially in technical careers—is still a big problem in India and needs to be tackled sooner than later. A Kelly Global Workforce Insights (KGWI) survey on Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), found that women in India tend to drop out of workforce at key phases in their lives, notably around childbearing years and later at mid-management levels.

This trend is visible especially in the information technology/information technology enabled services (IT/ITES) sector according to a Belong report which shows that women comprise a measly 26 per cent of the STEM workforce in the country. The facts and statistics in both the KGWI and Belong report come at the time when the state women’s education in India is significantly improving, though the last census revealed a woman’s literacy rate of 65.46 per cent in the country, significantly lower than the corresponding global figure of 79.7 per cent.

The scope of the problem

The low participation of women in India’s STEM workforce can be attributed to a few region-specific problems across the whole of Southeast Asia. Geetha Kannan, Managing Director at AnitaB.org India, says that she often hears from women technologists who, despite support from their husbands, face pressure to leave their jobs from their extended families. Kannan writes in her blog, “For many in India, the ideal woman is, first and foremost, a doting wife and mother. She must also represent the family outside the home, especially at the countless religious and cultural functions that are omnipresent in Indian society. These responsibilities leave little time to develop and hone an ambitious career in technology.” Kannan also points out in the blog that even today Indian society has some conservative rules of disparity.

At the recent Women Science Congress, Textile Minister Smriti Irani pointed out societal flaws assist gender biases, “Of the 2.8 lakh engineers and scientists employed in research and engineering institutions across the country; only 14 per cent are women, which is 39,000.” These numbers are disheartening because women STEM professionals can really make a mark for themselves given that the flourishing Indian IT/ITES sectors in which women employees are preferred over their male counterparts. A NASSCOM survey on gender diversity and inclusivity trends in the IT-Business Process Management (IT-BPM) sector confirms this and states that women applicants have far higher success rates than men. Currently, women get hired for more than 50 per cent of all entry-level jobs in the sector, but then the double-burden syndrome comes into play and they quit mid-career or even earlier. Reasons for this high attrition rate include conservative societal norms, work–life balance, anti-women biases at work and stereotyping.

At a recent Very Large Scale Integration Design (VLSI Design) conference on Jan 8, Pamela Kumar, Director General at Telecommunications Standards Development Society, asked, “Though we are moving forward, are we treating our daughters in laws in the same manner as our daughters?” and goes on to say that “available data shows that 81 per cent women in STEM say there is gender bias in performance evaluation. How will you be paid more when those who evaluate you have disinclination towards your gender?”

Women in STEM, pamela kumar

Kumar’s view is supported by government data compiled in “Men and Women 2017” which shows that there are significant differences between what men and women get paid for working at the same job. The report says that women who are at least graduates earn 24 per cent less than their male counterparts.  also, the percentage of men in mid- and upper-tier jobs also increases along with pay gaps, according to a 2016 Korn Ferry Haygroup report that reveals that India women in top positions earns 18.8 per cent less than men.

The biases women are up against

A recent survey conducted by the Society of Women Engineers and the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law revealed that there are four patterns of global biases against women working at technical jobs, which are:

  1. Prove-it-again bias:76 per cent of women engineers reported having to prove themselves over and over to get the same level of respect as their colleagues;
  2. Tightrope bias:77 per cent of women engineers reported that they were confined to a narrower range of acceptable behaviours than their colleagues;
  3. Maternal wall bias:40 per cent of women engineers reported bias against mothers at their workplaces; and,
  4. Tug of war bias:45 per cent of women reported that they had to compete with their female colleagues to get the one “woman’s spot” available.

Dr Basabi Bhaumik, Professor of Electrical Engineering at IIT Delhi, has this to say: “When I went to pursue my post-doctorate at MIT, there were only two women including me. When I was new at the job, I used to be told that I was I was doing a man’s job and the situation has not changed much even today.” Bhaumik said that to shatter the glass ceiling in STEM, more women should enter the field and she also advises women in tech to not to pay heed to people comments and stay strong.

women in stem ,basabi bhaumik

On this, India consultant of the Society of Women Engineers, Neeti Sanan says, “Biases lead to disengagement on the part of employees and are detrimental to workplace efficiency as people facing these biases feel excluded from work,” Higher levels of bias were associated with feelings of exclusion, belonging and lower intent to stay with the employer, she continued, “Clearly, employers who want to retain the women they hire, and want to give them equal opportunity to advance, need to care about workplace bias.”

The Indian corporate world is biased towards men and that situation needs to change, says Sumedha Limaye, Director of Engineering at Intel, “It’s a deeper issue with morals of corporate; females are not much encouraged and men also don’t speak up on such issues.” According to her, India needs more women in leadership roles and corporates needs to change the perspective that women cannot be leaders, “More women going up corporate ladder will encourage women workforce en masse and will encourage them not to give up.”

women in . stem, sumedha limaye

According to a pan India survey on higher education 2017–2018 conducted by Ministry of Human Resource Development, girls constituted 47.6 per cent of total number of enrolments in higher education in that academic year, but on breaking down the numbers according to field of study, the number of girls enrolling for STEM subjects was not impressive at all. According to Shobha Vasudevan, Associate Professor at the University of Illinois, “In the US, high level competitive exams or intellectual activities such as programming have a very male-biased orientation, and sometimes women think low about themselves; breaking this barrier will lead to more female in the field of STEMS thus increasing their numbers at tech firms.” Vasudevan further says the issue has been addressed in many ways in the US, for example, Lego has launched a series of STEM-female figures just to break the stereotype that science is meant only for men.

WOMEN IN STEM, SHOBHA VASUDEVANIt is a fact that a person’s sex has nothing to do with his or her proficiency at studying STEM subjects or working at STEM jobs. Viji Ranganna, Senior Director—Engineering at Qualcomm India, is of opinion that being a woman in technology field is not a disadvantage but to be strongly present in the system tech women should follow a few simple rules which are: Saying yes to challenging opportunities; Building a support system; Seeking help of others whenever required; and, Communicating and speaking up.

Miles to go

The Indian IT sector—which is the fifth largest contributor to the country’s GDP—has created 40 lakhs direct jobs in country. According to NASSCOM, the sector prefers women employees and will continue to be a net hirer and create approximately 2.5–3 million new jobs by 2025, thus creating attractive opportunities for qualified females.

Along with IT, even government and educational institutes, and technology firms are working to fill the gap and to make India’s engineering workforce truly diverse. Technology giants such as Cadence, Qualcomm or Intel have their own platforms for empowering tech women in India and recently Royal Bank of Scotland launched a forum, dubbed WomenInTech, to address the issue at various levels. Over the past few years, government too has worked out solutions for retaining working women and launched initiatives such as Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme for children of working mothers and women in maternity benefit programs.

India has launched one more programme in earnest to attract girls to and retain women in science, amid a countrywide challenge to reduce a worrisome gender disparity in this area of human endeavour. The Vigyan Jyoti scheme, advanced by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), was announced in the 2017 budget allocation for the Ministry of Science and Technology and given a 2,000-crore-rupee purse. The scheme’s aim: to arrange for girl students of classes 9, 10 and 11 meet women scientists, with the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research serving as the nodal centres, at least at first.

The announcement was accompanied by a redesigning and renaming of a national programme called Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE), changed to Inspire-MANAK (Million Minds Augmenting National Aspiration and Knowledge), to attract talented young boys and girls to study science and pursue research as a career.

Along with all this, educational institutes are approaching and mentoring parents increasing women enrollment in STEM fields. A practical way to tackle this issue is timely intervention at the school level and interactive sessions or programs to help mitigate the gender parity. The primary requirement though would be instilling confidence in female students by exposing girls in grades K-12 to STEM and introducing them to women in the field who can serve as role models, and that shall go a long way in reducing the gender disparity in STEM education and professions.

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