Context : The theme of this year’s National Science Day was “Women in Science”. It is celebrated every year on 28th February.

What are STEM careers?

The acronym STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, but it also includes in it a wide range of other disciplines such as Medicine, Aerospace, Chemistry, Computer Science etc.

Global Trends in STEM 

  • A detailed set of studies point out that in the United States while over 60% of BS, MS and PhD degrees in biological and chemical sciences are from women, only 25-30% of them do computer science, physics and engineering.
  • Even in life sciences, this gender disparity is glaring. Analysis has revealed that research-intensive universities take fewer women students.

Is India an outlier ?

From the annals of History

  1.  The cultural and gender norms that engendered discrimination even during a socio- cultural-religious  renaissance  in India was a major reason why the country lost out on an important opportunity to build a culture of including women in science during the pre-­Independence era
  2. Later, a resurgent inclusive nationalism propounded by Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and others encouraged  women, at least from the upper social strata, to break the familial and cultural shackles and enter the public space. 
  3. This social transformation, however limited it may have been, helped in bridging the gender gap in professional careers.

Current Scenario

  • According to UNESCO, globally only 29% of those in science research and development (R&D) are women, with a low 19% in South Asia and west Asia and high as 48% in Central Asia.
  • The book “Women in Science and Technology: Confronting Inequalities” reveals that women form only 10-15% of STEM researchers and faculty members in the IITs, CSIR etc.  The same holds good for private R&D labs too.
  • A study points out that science academies have hardly 10% women.
    • The Bhatnagar Prize has gone to 18 women out of a total of 548 so far.
    • Interestingly, there are no (or a minute percentage of women experts) women in these juries.
  • India’s 2008 National Task Force on Women in Science report says that women scientists constitute “a distinct minority” and that many highly qualified women, “drop out of the workforce.
    • It has been observed that the percentage of women in faculty positions drops to less than 20% with only a few reaching the top positions of institutes and universities.
  •  According to the Global Gender Gap Index 2020 released by WEF, India has slipped to the 112th spot from its 108th position in 2018.
    •  The report also says it would take nearly a hundred years to close the gender gap in various fields in India compared to the time it would take in other countries. 

 A Silver lining 

An Exponential growth in the participation of women in the undergraduate and graduate levels is reported in India. To put it in perspective

  • In the UK, where women account for 40% of undergraduate students in physical sciences and mathematical sciences and 14% in engineering and technology, India stands at 40% and 18%, respectively. 
    • In addition to it, more than 40% of PhD­holders in India are women.

 These figures are indicative of the fact that social shackles are loosening to an extent.

Reason for the Gender Divide

On the face of it, it looks like a case of Labor Market alterations, or demand-supply dynamics. But if we delve deeply in it, it traces its roots to socio-economic biases, prejudices, and persistent inequalities.

  • Culture of Masculinity in Labour Market :
    • Male Chauvinism : Male candidates, when applying for jobs in such fields engage in self-promotion and sound pompous, while equally deserving women “undersell” themselves, resulting in poor negotiation.
  • Patriarchy:
    • Societal definition of “Gender” calls for Sexual Division of Labour, that stereotypes and recommends certain jobs and skill sets better suited for men (Strenuous Outdoor jobs) and women (Delicate, Tender - Pink Jobs)
  • Low or no social mobility for Women
    •  Given that a girl child is seen as a burden, it becomes inevitable that they are not provided exposure to certain fields, increased social pressure of Marriage and household chores didn’t let them pursue research careers.
  • Social psychology of self-efficacy 
    • Glass ceiling
      • In general, it prohibits women from reaching heights in any career per se. 
    • Paucity of Role Models
      • Paucity of Role models discourage women to look up to STEM careers. For e.g. So far, Out of 866 nobel Prize Awardees, only 53 are women.
    • Above two factors lead to self doubt regarding capability in women’s minds.
    •  It results in women being restricted to Pink jobs (Social sciences and Life Sciences) . 
    • Also, the prevailing conditions force women at high echelons to retire early which is analogous to a leaky Pipeline problem.

Concerns Arising out of it

  • When highly qualified women drop out of this sector, it results  in considerable depletion of national resources in science and technology.
    • Also, Gendered aspect of any research will not be assessed properly, if Women are kept at bay.
    • It is concerning from the human rights perspective too.
  • Gender pay gap is increasing due to the skewed nature of women participation.
  • It also  impacts the quality of science and the advancement of society itself. 

Measures undertaken:

Schemes and Fellowships:

  1. Vigyan Jyoti scheme - To facilitate a meet up of High school girl students with that of women scientists, with the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research.
  2. Unnat Bharat Abhiyan programme, launched by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2014 to connect India’s elite institutes with local communities and address their developmental challenges with appropriate technological interventions.
  3. Women Scientist Scheme: Its objective is to  give women a strong foothold into the scientific profession, help them re-enter into the mainstream and provide a launch pad for further forays into the field of science and technology.
  4. Inspire-MANAK (Million Minds Augmenting National Aspiration and Knowledge)- It aims to attract talented young boys and girls to study science and pursue research as a career.
  5. KIRAN - Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing - This initiative has provisions for several women centric programmes.
  6. Bio-technology Career Advancement and Reorientation (Bio-Care) scheme.
  7. An Indo-US fellowship for women in STEM careers to participate in international collaborative research in premier institutions in America.

Other Interventions by Government:

  • Relaxing the upper age limit by five years for women candidates for junior and senior research fellowships awarded by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. 
  • Helping women who may need assistance  with motherhood or relocation due to husband’s transfer.

Way Forward:

Need of the hour is to bridge this gender divide and make use of the Women's knowledge pool to enhance India’s capability in STEM research.

  1. Early in the childhood:
    1. Overcoming patriarchal mindsets.
    2. Equal access to scientific education resource base for women.
  2. Early in the Education
    1. Girls should be encouraged to participate in programmes like Science Olympiad.
    2. Science academies should highlight the role of women scientists in Nation building and research.
  3. At workplace
    1. Childcare facilities should be made available on campus and in the workplace. 
    2. Reward mechanism for excellence
    3. Improved work climate to ensure gender sensitivity and redressal of grievances.
  4. Government:
    1. Promote Gender equality through IEC (Inform, Educate, Communicate)campaigns.
    2. Schemes should be monitored against their objectives and also efforts must be made to introduce more women in STEM careers.
    3. Special effort is required to build a conducive environment for retention as well as reintegration of those who had dropped out of STEM careers.
  5. Supportive Institutional Structure from the Scientific community
    1. Indian scientific community should act  as a pressure group to build greater focus on the issue and push for concrete measures to address the problem. 
    2. To start with, the community should make sure that the hiring process is not discriminated against women in the wake of  the Government's initiative to expand maternity leave to 26 weeks.
      1. The Productivity concerns of pregnant women scientists are of prime concern that depends on the number of papers published, field trials,etc. need to be taken care of by the community.


Image Source: SME Futures