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Achieving Gender Equality in STEM: Towards an Inclusive and Diverse Ecosystem

The fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, referred together as STEM, are crucial to a nation’s economic prosperity and global competitiveness. Prioritizing STEM education can lead to creation of new technologies and industries, sustainable solutions to climate challenges and greater participation in the global economy. As STEM fields have been historically dominated by men, promoting gender diversity holds the key to creativity, innovation, and harnessing the full potential of the human capital of an economy. This blog delves into the present trends of women’s participation in the STEM sector and how it can be improved.
According to a report by the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), the number of STEM jobs in India is expected to reach 100 million by 2025. This represents an increase of over 50% from the current 63 million jobs in the STEM sector. Research also suggests that women in India who take up science are more likely to be employed and earn about 28% more than women who study non-technical subjects. This makes it imperative that India focuses on achieving gender parity within STEM and creates an enabling ecosystem for more women to join STEM.
The AISHE 2020-21 reports that though the overall enrolment of women in education has increased, over the past few years, women’s enrolment rates across STEM courses at the undergraduate level has increased only marginally. Overall trends in STEM specifically, including undergraduate, postgraduate, M.Phil and PhD courses, indicate that women form about only 43.2% of the sample. B.Tech and B.E programmes have only 28.7% and 28.5% women respectively.
The promising figures of women obtaining STEM education does not get translated into the workforce. India sees the lowest participation of women in STEM globally at 26% of the STEM workforce. Indian women make up for only 13.9% of the researchers globally. Less than 5% of academic department chairs are women, who make up only 9% of fellows in the three Indian science academies (INSA, IASc, and NASI). This trend shows a huge drop off from education to joining the workforce, indicating that women face constant barriers while navigating employment in STEM.
The pipeline for women in STEM leadership roles starts wide at the time of education but narrows considerably as one moves upwards, resembling a leaky funnel that drains their talent and expertise from the system. Many factors contribute to women dropping out of the leaky pipeline of STEM. One major factor is the gendering of science and technology, which makes these fields deem suitable only for men. Boys and girls are socialised into traditional gender roles from a young age, which influences their career choices. Starting in school, children are exposed to traditionalist views on gender through curriculum design, classroom behaviour, and other interactions.
Even within STEM, the proportion of women students is not evenly distributed. Women’s enrolment in some prestigious science subjects, such as chemistry (42%), physics (38%), and engineering (32%), remains relatively low. AISHE 2020-21 shows that in the UG level there are only 6.68% women students in mechanical engineering and 23% in civil engineering. However, other fields, like life sciences (56%), microbiology (67%), and information technology/computer sciences (54%), witness higher enrolment of women, as per data from the Ministry of Education (in 2020).
These trends result in women finding themselves devoid of networking opportunities within the STEM workforce. It has often been reported that STEM workplaces and schools are often dominated by “boys’ clubs,” which are groups of men that systematically exclude women. This makes it difficult for women to feel supported within STEM fields, and many women choose not to pursue STEM careers as a result. This further leads to the persistence of a ‘glass ceiling’ perpetuated by social biases, traditionalist views of gender roles and prejudiced behaviour that exclude and discriminate against women. Encouragingly, issues like salary gaps and overt gender discrimination in India are improving, but deep-rooted social norms and biases continue to hinder progress for women especially in leadership roles.
Such an ecosystem deters women’s entry and growth in STEM fields. Overrepresentation of men prevents growth of women into leadership positions, denying early-career professionals of leaders to mentor and sponsor them. As decision-makers are mostly men, workplaces are structured to disfavour women with inflexible working hours, infrastructure, lack of childcare support, etc. Additionally, women are required to balance household responsibilities along with work responsibilities.
To address these gaps the Government of India has implemented a number of initiatives to promote women in STEM. Initiatives like the supernumerary scheme have added more seats for women in IITs. Such a scheme for private institutions can go a long way in bringing more women into STEM and creating gender parity across STEM streams. Further, the Department of Science and Technology’s Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions charter (GATI) aims to establish gender equality practices at the institutional level through sensitisation and awareness generation in STEM institutions. The KIRAN initiative is aimed at inducting more women talent in the research & development domain through various programmes. Furthermore, the mobility Scheme of the Department of Science and Technology supports women scientists in relocation due to spouse transfers, caregiving, or children’s education in different cities.
These initiatives have been successful in increasing women’s participation in STEM, but they fall short on tackling existing biases. We need school curriculums that do not conform to traditional gender roles in labour. Additionally, schools can make an active effort to introduce gender-equity within the curriculum so that young girls are better equipped to navigate gendered ecosystems. Such early-stage initiatives should be complemented with mentoring and sponsorship initiatives at the workplace that will support women’s growth.
Another challenge for India is the lack of gender-disaggregated data on women’s participation in the sector. While the data for educational institutions and public employment in STEM is available, the private sector lags behind in reporting gender disaggregated data. Availability of such data can be beneficial in promoting women’s participation in the private sector and also enable state and union governments to promote women’s participation and education in a transparent and efficient manner.
Considering the significant impact of science and technology on economic growth, it is essential to implement more strategies that promote and retain women in STEM fields. Gender diversity in STEM has a profound impact on developing nations by driving economic growth, technological advancement, and societal well-being. Through an emphasis on investing in promoting women’s participation in STEM education, countries can capitalise on their human capital, foster innovation, and address global challenges.

The blog is authored by Sayak Sinha, Policy Manager, IWWAGE

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