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Why are there so few women in science in India ?

It is a fact that globally women and girls are systematically excluded from participation in science and innovation. Recognizing that the status quo of girls and women in science is a fundamental impediment for attaining 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda; the UN dedicated 11th February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science designated to raise awareness and promote the participation of women and girls in scientific fields. But even as we marked the 6th year of this event, global gender disparity in science remains, and some regions fare worse than others. In this post, I’ll look at India in particular where the disenfranchisement of women and girls in science is highly problematic for the future.

One of the two indicators that UNESCO UIS measures to track progress toward sustainable development in terms of enhancing scientific research and development (SDG target 9.5) is the number of researchers per million inhabitants (in full time equivalent).  When segregated by gender, the 2018 data shows the number of female researchers only account for 30% of the total number of researchers worldwide. Within Central and South Asia cluster which has 24.3% of female researchers, India performs far below the average with only 16.6% of researchers being female. Not only does this affect the scientific and technological progress, but exclusion of women in science from the workforce also comes at the price of economic growth. Although there is a lack of data on the impact of female inclusion in economic terms in scientific fields in India, it is estimated that the Indian economy could grow by US$ 2.9 trillion by 2025 if gender parity were to be achieved in all sectors.

It is estimated that the Indian economy could grow by US$2.9 trillion by 2025 if gender parity were to be achieved in all sectors

McKinsey Report: The Power of Parity, 2015

The question that follows is to ask what are the reasons for the poor labor force participation of women in scientific fields in India?

Although, globally, a key reason for lack of women in science is the low female enrollment in STEM education, India is an anomaly- female enrollment and consequently, graduates in STEM in India is high. In fact, the number of female graduates at the undergraduate level in STEM at 43%, is the highest in the world (AISHE 2018-19). The paradox of educational attainment vs low workforce participation of women in STEM is perplexing but further analyzing data unravels a clearer picture.  

The number of female graduates at the undergraduate level in STEM in India at 43% is the highest in the world.

All India Survey of Higher Education, 2018-19

But despite what seems to be an overall gender parity in education in STEM in India, the enrollment of girls is, in fact, concentrated in some fields more than others. Higher female enrollment is seen in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics as opposed to engineering, manufacturing and construction (Fig.1). Gender stereotyping that certain subjects and jobs are more ‘suited’ for women lead to few girls opting for what are considered as ‘masculine’ or technical subjects such as engineering and computer science. Thereby, women in STEM related fields are missing in the workforce despite an incremental rise (44% from 2016-19) of STEM related jobs in India most of which are concentrated in IT, Banking and Financial services that hire talent in the roles of software engineers, web developers, SAP consultants etc. Most female STEM graduates either leave the workforce or pursue a different career.

For the Indian women in science, who do join work, further challenges await as patriarchal gender norms influence work environments and career choices. Tradition dictates that women take care of the family and are responsible for the household, child rearing and caregiving. For women in the workforce, this translates into a ‘double burden’ of having to juggle careers and paid work as well as household chores. Even among the millennials in urban family units with working women, gender norms persist. Men who occasionally share in the housework are considered to be ‘helping’ as if it is a favor bestowed rather than a responsibility shared. In STEM careers, the double burden upon women becomes more pronounced as the male dominated work cultures tend to be inconducive to these challenges faced by women. Therefore, it is not uncommon for women to drop out of the workforce especially during major life changes such as having a baby. Moreover, academic careers generally require uninterrupted stints, making it harder for women to remain in career and progress professionally. According to NITI Aayog report on Women in Science of 2017, flexible working hours, healthcare support for self, family and children, and housing and transport facilities are enabling features that allow women to play the dual role. These features are also reported as the most lacking and in need to be addressed.

Gender norms also affect how women are viewed and treated at the workplace. Women in STEM report being considered as less competent, given less respect and feeling isolated at the workplace. 76% of female engineers in India had to prove themselves repeatedly to earn equivalent respect to that of men. Women are also under-represented in scientific research and decision-making bodies. Gender data of the number of women fellows in Indian National Science Academy in 2020 (fig.2) shows that there are 10 times as many men as women holding fellowships. When boards and committees in science become ‘boy’s clubs’ dominated by men, it puts women at a disadvantage to be granted awards and memberships that can push them in their careers. It is no wonder then that we rarely see women being the recipients of awards in scientific fields.

(INSA refers to Indian National Science Academy)

Together, toxic work cultures, inflexible work environments, poor policies and payment gaps create what is known as the “leaky pipeline phenomena” in STEM- that is a lower participation of women as we go higher up the professional ladder.

What do these observations of issues stacked against participation of women in STEM related careers mean?

Analyzing all the challenges that women face- in pursuing STEM careers and staying in the positions long enough to reach leadership and decision-making levels makes it obvious that at the core of the problem are gender stereotypes and norms and lack of policies necessary to incentivize women’s participation, enable career progression and reduce discrimination. Its time, however, to go beyond the trite measures of only increasing STEM enrolment for girls. Clearly, this is not translating to more women in STEM careers. Below I briefly mention a few steps that I believe can enhance the participation of girls and women in science:

  • It is a well-known fact that STEM graduates in India have a shortage of skills. Industry reports quote varying degrees of ‘unemployability’ of STEM graduates including engineers. This is a result of education being out of sync with the industry requirements. In the future, it is expected that AI, machine learning, automation and robotics will transform the Indian economy. While overall STEM graduates lack skills and need to come up to scale with the emerging technologies to stay competent, women in STEM should be particularly targeted. Already at a disadvantage due to biases mentioned above at the workplace, not equipping themselves with the market demands for the new age will incrementally marginalize women in these fields, which are expected to see the most job openings in the future.
  • Gender norms in STEM should also be targeted through media channels. It is incumbent upon government agencies and private corporations to realize the potential they have in changing attitudes and influencing the country’s future. Whether it is in advertisements, through programs, or films- women in STEM should be highlighted and promoted taking care to not reinforce stereotypes such as girls in STEM being ‘geeky’ and unsocial etc. (This brings me to another point that is not isolated to women in STEM but worth mentioning- that ‘superwomen’ in media who handle with ease both their households and careers expertly should be re-examined for their lack of reality. I still remember a STAR-Plus (Indian tv channel)theme to celebrate women, a couple years ago, that idolized a woman one who did all her chores in the household, played traffic police on the way to work, acted as a neighborhood vigilante and returned home after a tiring day to her joyous family that celebrated her (birthday and I suppose her self-sacrifice). Such portrayals put unfair demands on women and show that only those who can live up to the unrealistic expectations are to be celebrated.)
  • Government and organizational policies should make provisions for women to be able to take breaks from their careers in STEM if they need to and rejoin. On the same note, policies should be family-friendly such that men are supported in taking on their responsibilities as well through paid paternity leave and parental leave to take care of children. Anti-discrimination laws are also essential to curbing bias in recruitment and employment of women in STEM.
  • Women in STEM should be represented in all national bodies of science and recognized for their achievements and awarded duly where it is due. Doing so will provide girls and women with female role models that are desperately needed in STEM fields. The first step for this however is to include women in policymaking at all levels.
  • It is extremely important to reduce pay gaps for women in STEM. It has been found that when compensation is lower, it leads to lower job satisfaction resulting in greater number of women exiting STEM careers

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