Why Are Women Missing in STEM Spaces?

Why Are Women Missing in STEM Spaces?

Authors: Sona Mitra, Devika Oberai, and Sayak Sinha

Published: 19th January in Hindu BusinessLine

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2023, women make up only 29.2% of all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workers across 146 countries. In India, research by Muralidhar and Ananthanarayanan (2023) highlighted that across 100 Indian universities, only 16.6% of the overall STEM faculty were women. Within this, the latest All India Survey on Higher Education (2020-21) reports women make up 42.3% of the sample in STEM education- including undergraduate, postgraduate, MPhil, and PhD courses. However, within this too, girls are concentrated in life sciences, with programs such as B.Tech comprising only 28.7% of women. Across premier institutions such as IITs, women constitute about 20% of the sample.

The gaps in STEM arise due to certain factors that operate in the early phases in girls’ education. Social conditioning arising from existing norms and perceptions about the roles of girls and women in the society often leads in shaping the choices that girls make while enrolling themselves into higher education.  The conditioning of young children continues even within the school systems where the curriculum and pedagogical practises undermine the self-esteem and confidence of girls.

In order to address these gaps at the entry level, interventions that inspire younger girls to meaningfully engage with STEM need to take shape early. Programmes like Vigyaan Jyoti implemented by the Dept. of Science and Technology comprising  of activities such as counseling, role-model interactions, etc. currently target high school students. Similar interventions targeting younger students implemented at an earlier stage could prove useful. Similarly, fortifying Foundational Literacy and Numeracy outcomes through increased financial investment, gender-responsive teacher-training modules and robust assessment and monitoring frameworks can all contribute to improved higher-education outcomes for girls.

The other major challenge is the retention of women within the STEM ecosystem. Early data from Key Global Workforce Insights Report (2015) suggest that even when women choose STEM careers , 45% reported challenges in upward mobility and as many as 81% believed that there is a gender-bias in the internal evaluation processes. Further, the government’s labourforce survey in 2020-21 suggests a gender pay-gap with men earning 35 percent more than women across all sectors, thus demotivating the intent to stay in the labor force.  Evidence from professors at IIT Kanpur found that women working as scientists in lab-based occupations face isolation in male dominated labs that often manifest in lack of support for women colleagues, and losing out on networking opportunities for women that hinder upward mobility. Such trends often also end up in undervaluing women’s research and findings within the labs.

Promoting women and retaining them through targeted interventions by key actors becomes critical. At an institutional level, policies that afford flexibility of time, comprehensive child-care provisions, and supportive infrastructure are crucial in creating an environment conducive to sustained participation of women. Addressing the gender-pay gap in STEM holds potential to incentivize women to persist in STEM careers. The Dept. of Science and Technology has introduced the GATI (Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions) charter which is a voluntary, signatory charter to nudge research institutions to support diversity and inclusion. The charter encourages gender-agnostic hiring, maternity leaves, non-discriminatory appraisals, etc. and has shown promising results across 30 pilot institutions such as IIT Delhi, University of Delhi, Jamia Millia Islamia, etc. Making these charters mandatory rather than voluntary, thus, has the potential to retain more women in prestigious institutions.

Facilitating re-entry is essential for retaining women in the field. Returnship programs adopted by few companies, have demonstrated promise in facilitating the reintegration of women into workplaces after career breaks, thereby allowing them to resume their professional trajectories.  Mahindra’s ‘Back to Mahindra’ initiative is specifically designed to aid former women employees transition back to work. The Federal Bank recently introduced the ‘Maternity Work Buddy’ initiative, offering support to expectant mothers by providing updates on the workplace during their maternity leaves. The HCL-Tech Returnship and Microsoft’s Leap Program offer short-term professional engagements to those out of the workforce.

While increasing women’s participation in STEM is challenging and layered with several dimensions – it can be meaningfully addressed by increasing targeted interventions as already discussed. The state has an important role – as the most powerful actor, it can not only raise awareness and improve its own initiatives but also effectively activate the private sector participation to enable entry and re-entry of women and girls in STEM education and occupations.

Sona and Sayak are at the Initiative for What Works to Advance Gender Equality (IWWAGE), and Devika is an Associate at The Quantum Hub (TQH).