Getting women into STEM

Last Updated : 02 March 2021, 06:22 IST
Last Updated : 02 March 2021, 06:22 IST

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“In the society that I come from, it is okay for boys to take risks. However, for girls, it is not okay - we prod them to be perfect. Girls are ingrained with the idea that they ‘must’ be perfect. But engineering is often about failure.”

“In my Physics department, out of 100 people, only about 22% are women. Having women in physics is difficult. We have been discouraged since early times.”

These are some comments by young girls and women from our recent study, 'STEM Mindsets, Careers and Women - An Indian Study', while sharing how they experience workplaces.

The objective of this study was to derive a pragmatic definition of a STEM mindset by querying working professionals in various fields. From a gender lens, it highlights women's experience of STEM career pathways.

The female labour participation rate in India is bleak, with a mere 20.7% participation rate and even lesser STEM participation by women.

Research shows that 43% of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates in India are women but their share in STEM jobs is a mere 14% indicating that there is a leaky pipeline.

India ranked second in the world’s top 20 countries with the highest number of female CEOs. However, the share of female CEOs in tech companies in India is only a miniscule 5.01%. Women also constitute only 14% of the 280,000 scientists, engineers in research and development institutes in India.

Data shows that while women are entering school and college and doing well in greater numbers, they are not staying on at work, especially in STEM. This means that more schooling does not mean better jobs or better lives. Academic success alone is not sufficient to make a smooth transition into employment or to help women stay at work.

Women either drop out of a STEM career midway, pursue careers in other fields or drop out of the workforce altogether.

The reasons for such low representation of women in STEM fields range from unequal responsibilities at home, gendered stereotypes and internalised self-limiting beliefs to limited organisation support and discrimination within systems.

'Male-dominated workspaces'

For instance, women report an impermeable ‘bro culture’ at workspaces, which essentially they often find it difficult to network among peers — an activity crucial for success in male-dominated spaces at work.

A study conducted by Kelly Global Workforce Insights (KGWI) found that 81% of Indian women in STEM jobs perceived gender bias in performance evaluation and that women tend to drop out of the STEM workforce around the years of childbearing or at mid-management levels, which leads to fewer roles in top management in STEM which they occupy.

The study also found that 42% of women leave technology companies post 10 years of experience compared to only 17% of men.

Some 30% of women in science reported that their career adversely affected their family commitments and responsibilities and 47% cited the same as the reason for refusing to accept challenging opportunities in their careers.

So what would help?

Interventions have to be made at critical junctures, in organisations and at home, to encourage girls (and other children at risk) to participate equally in STEM careers.

“There is this problem — it is related to how much you like somebody, rather than how much you respect their technical skills. In companies, it is written down and couched in different terms — you have to be a team player, you have to have interpersonal skills. Likeability manifests itself in do you get along at tea, fewer women come to the watering holes than men. It is not that they are barred from the canteen, but they cannot join the group,” says Giri, a chemical engineer, on the subconscious bias which prevents women from rising to top leadership positions.

“Many women are capable, some women are supported by their family or husband. My friend’s wife runs a paper mill. Women need freedom, they have skills, but some may find difficulty in traveling. If women have to cook and clean after work – then they can’t manage a factory,” says Bala, a woman entrepreneur.

Focusing on delivering value, developing confidence and marathon mindset, using breaks from the world of work to network and upskill, and building long-lasting support systems have been mentioned as key to doing well in the world of work.

A few suggestions

Change in mindset: At the societal level, the general mindset that women need to give up their career for the sake of child rearing or caregiving needs to be challenged. Families could pitch in by having both men and women share the responsibility of childcare, and be supportive at home of women who are working or wanting to get back after a break.

Support women after maternity: Organisations could create systems to support women who want to return to work after childbirth, rather than viewing the temporary break as a setback. Workspaces should provide childcare facilities.

For instance, The National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore has managed to retain its pool of women scientists by providing excellent childcare facilities within the campus.

Hire more women: Organisations could insist on hiring women to offset the statement that ‘suitable women candidates do not exist’. This would force managers to look for women employees rather than stay with their biases.

Create spaces for women: Within the organisation, professional teams need to create spaces for women to be part of the office network. If it is not possible for them to be part of the male watering holes, then there could be alternate ways of networking.

Male managers could be made aware that women are left out of the groups, and try to include them in safe spaces for discussions on work. Women could create their own networks.

Challenge stereotypes: As individuals, women need to challenge stereotypes and be comfortable with their own femininity, as mentioned by a woman data security engineer. According to her, women should focus on contributing to the company’s goals (making money) and carve a niche for themselves.

The director of engineering in chip design also spoke about the need for women to be more comfortable taking risks and failing rather than conforming to a so-called perfect version of themselves that could sabotage their careers.

Marathon, not a sprint: Lastly, women ought to view their career as a marathon, rather than a sprint, and pace themselves. Some women professionals mentioned the role of a teacher in their career - for aspirational STEM careerists, it is important to actively and purposefully build such teacher/mentor networks to help them grow.

(The author is a development practitioner and researcher)

Published 01 March 2021, 13:50 IST

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