Making Science An Inclusive Space For Women And Girls
In India, while the number of girls taking up science in higher education has increased, they form only 14% of the science workforce.
This year’s National Science Day – celebrated every February 28 to commemorate the discovery of the ‘Raman Effect’ by Sir C.V. Raman – carries the theme ‘Integrated Approach in Science & Technology for a Sustainable Future’. While the theme is about integrating the work of different departments, we would like to take this opportunity to highlight another layer of integration needed to improve Science and Technology in India – equal participation and involvement of the nation’s women and girls in STEM!
Why Does Science Need More Women And Girls?
According to the National Science Foundation, the future of work is technological; around 80% of the jobs in the next decade will require STEM skills. And while around 12 million people are added to the country’s working population every year, we are already facing a shortage of STEM workers. Without more women in STEM jobs, India has no hope of reaching Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of making India a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25.
The need to provide girls full and equal access and participation in STEM is crucial for India’s economy and science itself. Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is essential to fostering reliable, representative and meaningful science. Women bring their unique perspectives to research and scientific conversation – and ultimately make science richer, broader, and more accurate when gender is considered.
Solutions to make STEM inclusive for women and girls
The Government has been at the forefront of efforts to research, articulate, and find solutions for increasing participation of women in STEM. For example, the Department of Science and Technology is leading several programmes to encourage women scientists, such as GATI (Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions) and Women Scientists Scheme (WOS) and the CURIE programme (Consolidation of University Research for Innovation and Excellence in Women Universities). Dr Nisha Mendiratta, Head & Advisor/Scientist ‘G’, WISE-KIRAN Division, Dept of Science & Technology (DST), GoI, recently gave more details on the thought behind these programmes, “We need to realize the potential of girls. We should make them feel that they can take up STEM. Then we must have an avenue to retain them into science; through our various programmes, we can recognize that they are in no way less than men. And finally, there should be a proper reward system. If they are doing good work, they should be rewarded properly. It’s the 4 R approach – realize, retain, recognize and reward.”
As a woman of STEM, Gayathri Parthasarathy, VP & Senior Partner, Asia Pacific Banking Leader, IBM Services, has seen the problems as well as the solutions up close. She understands the pressures women with young families face and has helmed several initiatives to make corporate India more supportive. “Many young women drop off at some point saying that I can’t do this because I can only manage everything at this level. That’s where stagnation sets in, and it’s up to the corporates to provide that support and flexibility that women need at this point.” She said, “It’s an extended family approach for me. We have to provide support and that extra hand so that women continue to break barriers and go up in terms of the right positions as well.”
What’s Keeping India’s Girls From Pursuing STEM?
Today, in India, while the number of girls taking up science in higher education has increased, they form only 14% of the science workforce. Clearly, the school-to-work transition has a ‘leaky pipeline’ where many women are not able to build viable STEM career pathways and those who do, find it challenging to retain their careers.
Even before professional career challenges occur, young girls in India face many real-life barriers that make STEM inaccessible to them right from school. Depending on their socio-economic status and geographical locations, girls encounter a host of structural or societal barriers. Without obvious role models, they often lack STEM career aspirations, and in Tier 2 or 3 and rural locations, this is often coupled with an absence of a supportive ecosystem or a teaching system that helps them understand and pursue science.
Speaking specifically of structural barriers girls face, Sanyukta Chaturvedi, Director, Digital Equalizer, American India Foundation, said, “Girls in urban spaces might have more information and access, but over 65% of India’s population resides in rural areas. The reality for the girls in rural India is a mix of societal barriers and unavailability of resources. We need to bring an ecosystem transformation via initiatives like STEM for Girls to enable these young girls with the right skills and provide them with the agency to choose STEM. Collaborative action is necessary to build a sustainable and equitable future for these young girls.”
However, society and gender perception seems to be the main roadblock from the perspective of several women pursuing pure science. In a recent conversation, Padma Shree awardee, Prof Rohini Godbole, Particle Physicist and Honorary Professor, High Energy Physics in the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, spoke about some of the key challenges she has observed during her career,”In general, for a woman to be professional, there are challenges around balancing of career and family. But I think that’s common to all professional women. In science, particularly, there is a difference. You don’t get into the groove of your career right after getting your degree, you have an internship to do, and that time matches the time that the body clock is ticking. For me, body clock or career ticking simultaneously is one of the big challenges, and the second big challenge is that society doesn’t see science as a career for women.”
Girls can’t be what they can’t see: Aspirational barriers
A recent survey conducted by the ed-tech company Avishkaar showed that 95% of children, including girls, recall male role models as inspiration in STEM fields. As many as 30% of parents even feel that the work environment in our country in these fields is more suitable for males versus females. In many situations, the gendered perceptions around STEM, in teachers, parents and girls themselves, hold them back from following their initial interest in science.
Nandita Jayaraj, a science journalist and co-founder at The Life of Science, lab-hops across the country to meet and document the stories of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. She has seen first-hand how difficult it is for girls and women to find encouragement in their ecosystem. “It takes a lot more for a girl to achieve success in STEM. You have to be unreal levels of brilliant to be recognized, nurtured, and achieve success in STEM as compared to boys,” Nandita said. “Also, girls growing up, see that the people who are getting the awards, the people who are in the newspapers for science, are men. It really sends out a strong message that the brilliant people, the brilliant scientists, are all men. This question of the aptitude of women and girls in science follows them throughout their careers. I have heard from very young scientists up to very senior scientists say that they sometimes struggle for their voice to be heard.”
IBM’s STEM For Girls Initiative – Breaking Barriers At The Secondary School Level
To make sure enough women have the option to choose STEM careers, we need to first work at the school level to get them interested, excited and able to pursue STEM.
STEM for Girls is IBM’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative that brings digital literacy, 21st-century skills, coding, and life skills curriculum to students in government secondary schools across India. These are specially designed to help the girl students explore the possibilities of STEM-related careers and break gender stereotypes.
“A girl as she grows up, all she hears is that I am not good at science or you cannot do math, or there is no need for you to study. And that discourages her right from the start. We are breaking these kinds of barriers for girls in India,” explained Shalini Kapoor, IBM Fellow – AI, CTO – Climate and Sustainability Software, IBM India, about the STEM for Girls programme. “We work with girls in schools across the country, showing them science demos, working with them in science camps and telling them that technology need not be feared. It can be a friend. We give them the skills right from the start so that they are future skills ready. We want them to rise high and pick up careers that can bring them dignity, self-esteem and self-respect.”
In the last 3 years, the initiative has impacted 2,00,000 and 1,00,000 boys of 1700+ government schools across 13 states pan India. You can watch more details of the initiative and hear the complete discussion with eminent women of STEM here.
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