General Studies IIndian Society

Women in STEM fields: An Indian perspective

India has a rich history of women scientists and mathematicians, including: Rukhmabai (India’s first practicing lady doctor, 1894.  But despite the great opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), it has been observed that women (especially in India) are not too keen on opting for science and technology in academics or as a profession. The “double-burden syndrome”—which makes women quit jobs mid-career, especially in technical careers—is still a big problem in India and needs to be tackled sooner than later.

A Kelly Global Workforce Insights (KGWI) survey on Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), found that women in India tend to drop out of workforce at key phases in their lives, notably around childbearing years and later at mid-management levels. This trend is visible especially in the information technology/information technology enabled services (IT/ITES) sector according to a Belong report which shows that women comprise a measly 26 per cent of the STEM workforce in the country. The facts and statistics in both the KGWI and Belong report come at the time when the state women’s education in India is significantly improving, though the last census revealed a woman’s literacy rate of 65.46 per cent in the country, significantly lower than the corresponding global figure of 79.7 per cent. 

The scope of the problem:

Women technologists who, despite support from their husbands, face pressure to leave their jobs from their extended families, first and foremost, a doting wife and mother. She must also represent the family outside the home, especially at the countless religious and cultural functions that are omnipresent in Indian society. These responsibilities leave little time to develop and hone an ambitious career in technology. Even today Indian society has some conservative rules of disparity. At the recent Women Science Congress, Textile Minister Smriti Irani pointed out societal flaws assist gender biases, “Of the 2.8 lakh engineers and scientists employed in research and engineering institutions across the country; only 14 per cent are women, which is 39,000.” These numbers are disheartening because women STEM professionals can really make a mark for themselves given that the flourishing Indian IT/ITES sectors in which women employees are preferred over their male counterparts. A NASSCOM survey on gender diversity and inclusivity trends in the IT-Business Process Management (IT-BPM) sector confirms this and states that women applicants have far higher success rates than men. Currently, women get hired for more than 50 per cent of all entry-level jobs in the sector, but then the double-burden syndrome comes into play and they quit mid-career or even earlier. Reasons for this high attrition rate include conservative societal norms, work–life balance, anti-women biases at work and stereotyping.

According to a pan India survey on higher education 2017–2018 conducted by Ministry of Human Resource Development, girls constituted 47.6 per cent of total number of enrolments in higher education in that academic year, but on breaking down the numbers according to field of study, the number of girls enrolling for STEM subjects was not impressive at all.

Miles to go: The Indian IT sector—which is the fifth largest contributor to the country’s GDP—has created 40 lakhs direct jobs in country. According to NASSCOM, the sector prefers women employees and will continue to be a net hirer and create approximately 2.5–3 million new jobs by 2025, thus creating attractive opportunities for qualified females.  Along with IT, even government and educational institutes, and technology firms are working to fill the gap and to make India’s engineering workforce truly diverse. Technology giants such as Cadence, Qualcomm or Intel have their own platforms for empowering tech women in India and recently Royal Bank of Scotland launched a forum, dubbed WomenInTech, to address the issue at various levels. Over the past few years, government too has worked out solutions for retaining working women and launched initiatives such as Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme for children of working mothers and women in maternity benefit programs. India has launched one more program in earnest to attract girls to and retain women in science, amid a countrywide challenge to reduce a worrisome gender disparity in this area of human endeavor.

The Vigyan Jyoti scheme, advanced by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), was announced in the 2017 budget allocation for the Ministry of Science and Technology and given a 2,000-crore-rupee purse. The scheme’s aim: to arrange for girl students of classes 9, 10 and 11 meet women scientists, with the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research serving as the nodal centres, at least at first. The announcement was accompanied by a redesigning and renaming of a national programme called Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE), changed to Inspire-MANAK (Million Minds Augmenting National Aspiration and Knowledge), to attract talented young boys and girls to study science and pursue research as a career. Along with all this, educational institutes are approaching and mentoring parents increasing women enrollment in STEM fields. A practical way to tackle this issue is timely intervention at the school level and interactive sessions or programs to help mitigate the gender parity. The primary requirement though would be instilling confidence in female students by exposing girls in grades K-12 to STEM and introducing them to women in the field who can serve as role models, and that shall go a long way in reducing the gender disparity in STEM education and professions.

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