Promoting Girls To Crack The Code

I was thrilled with two heartening news last week which were also quite contrary to the popular opinion and established notions. Priyanka Sar from Bhubaneswar emerged as the State topper in the Session 2 of JEE Main 2023 and Ridhi Kamlesh Kumar Maheshwari not just scored 100 percentile in the same exam but was also all India topper amongst girls.

Ridhi reportedly said that boys in her coaching class thought that she would get a good branch due to the supernumerary seats for girls in Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), but she proved everybody wrong by securing 100 percentile in the entrance exam. According to her, the stereotype that girls can’t perform well in Mathematics is wrong and girls can achieve anything they want.

It’s indeed promising seeing the aspirations and confidence of girls and young women to excel in in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), some of whom are also actively encouraged and supported by families to pursue their dreams.

Time was when girls and women were dissuaded from studying STEM subjects and pursuing a career in them. And those pursuing these fields were at the receiving end of severe gender discrimination and had to overcome a series of obstacles to excel despite having the talent and aptitude.

Although the situation is far from desirable, the narrative around women and science, however, is gradually changing for the better. Sample this. This year, out of the total candidates registered for the JEE, 30% are female candidates. There has been a consistent growth in Indian women STEM graduates, that is women students who have completed their STEM study of Undergraduate/Postgraduate/MPhil and PhD level of higher education.

Importantly, there have been more and more female role models in science for the younger generation now. Indian women scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for example, have played a key role in the country’s Moon, Mars and other space programmes. Women in India are breaking the glass ceiling and excelling in all areas of STEM. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for instance, has for the first time, appointed a woman Director-General in its 80-year-old history.

Nevertheless, while the gradually shifting trends are encouraging, the road ahead for women in STEM in India is still thorny. Research reveals that while there are a significant number of women studying science in India, very few of them are pursuing a career in it.

Paradoxically, though India has the highest proportion of women graduates in STEM in the world at 43%, more than the developed nations like the US (34%), UK (38%), Germany (27%) and France (32%), there has been a persistent issue of underrepresentation of women in STEM jobs, despite calls for increasing their representation in the workforce. A 2020 United Nations report noted that Indian women scientists constituted only 14% of the 280,000 scientists, engineers and technologists employed in various research institutions in the Country, which is much less than the global proportion of women amongst the world’s scientific researchers at 30%.

Also, despite the increasing women STEM graduates, a large number of qualified women scientists opt for undergraduate or school level teaching assignments and only 15-20% join tenured faculty positions in research institutions and universities in India and while others completely drop out of science.

Women make up only 13% of scientists and science faculty in Indian higher education and research institutions, as per a 2022 nationwide survey by BiasWatchIndia, which documents gender bias in science in the Country. India’s 13% per cent proportion of women in science despite women accounting for nearly 40% per cent of the annual science PhDs is lower than the global average of 28%.
Although experts have repeatedly suggested that there is no significant difference in the aptitude for STEM subjects between men and women, the participation of women in these fields continues to remain low. Breaking myths and stereotypes around STEM is also crucial to encourage and enable the participation and contribution of more girls and women into the field.

According to UNESCO’s 2017 publication, “Cracking the code: girls’ and women’s education in STEM,” girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects as they get older, particularly between early and late adolescence. The gender gap in STEM becomes particularly apparent in upper secondary education, as reflected in girls’ choices of advanced studies in mathematics and science. Women continue to drop out of STEM disciplines in disproportionate numbers during their higher education studies, while transitioning to the world of work and even during their career cycle.

Socialization does have a role to play with girls and women internalizing negative stereotypes. Girls’ disadvantage in STEM is a result of multiple and overlapping factors embedded in both the socialisation and learning processes. Girls are often brought up to believe that STEM subjects are “masculine” topics and that female ability in STEM is innately inferior to that of males. While research on biological factors belies any factual basis for such beliefs, they persist and undermine girls’ confidence, interest and willingness to engage in STEM subjects.

Another major reason for women dropping off from a career in STEM due to marriage and family commitments. Women tend to drop out of workforce at key phases in their lives, notably around childbearing years and later at mid-management levels. They are subjected to gender biases in their workspaces and performance evaluations with lesser opportunities to go to the top position. In short, they are not able to progress as far as men in their careers

The Department of Science & Technology (DST) in India has been taking several steps to improve the gender ratio and increase the participation of women in STEM by restructuring all the women specific programmes under one umbrella ‘Women in Science and Engineering – Knowledge Involvement Research Advancement through Nurturing (WISE-KIRAN) which aims to address issues related with women scientists such as unemployment, career breaks, relocation etc through its various programme strands.

Women scientists and young achievers are also being given recognition through awards for their contribution. Companies have started incorporating flexible work timings, provision of day care and relaxation of age limits to encourage women further to participate in the STEM field. Learning platforms also provide women with upskilling and reskilling opportunities.

However, despite efforts made over the past few years to narrow the gender gap in STEM education, major inequalities still persist. Besides the hard work and determination of girls and women, changes in the workplace policy, and deploying more financial and human resources for effective training of these women in technologies are critical.

The UNESCO Report says that education systems and schools play a central role in determining girls’ interest in STEM subjects and in providing equal opportunities to access and benefit from quality STEM education. Teachers, learning contents, materials and equipment, assessment methods and tools, the overall learning environment and the socialisation process in school are all critical to ensuring girls’ interest and engagement in STEM studies and, ultimately, STEM careers, it says.

Gender equality in STEM will ensure that boys and girls, men and women, will be able to acquire skills and opportunities to contribute to and benefit equally from it. Girls and women need to be provided with the facilities and environment they need to ensure that they are enabled and empowered.

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