Scientific breakthroughs, systemic barriers: Women in STEM

Last Updated : 25 February 2023, 22:54 IST
Last Updated : 25 February 2023, 22:54 IST
Last Updated : 25 February 2023, 22:54 IST
Last Updated : 25 February 2023, 22:54 IST

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‘Women cannot be taken onboard a warship’. Aeronautics engineer Nemichandra of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) had a unique problem to face in the 1990s when she arrived in Mumbai as the only woman on a team tasked with integrating the advanced torpedo system on a Chetak helicopter.

She was responsible for the ‘weapon release and safety circuits’, as well as the integration of the torpedo electronic unit on the helicopter. The flight trials were to take place somewhere deep inside the Arabian Sea.

Nemichandra was required to be present for the flight trials and had the requisite clearance from the naval headquarters. However, she was told that there are no facilities available for women to sail in a warship, and she cannot be taken on board.

Whatever the inconveniences on a warship, she would not let an opportunity go because of her gender. It took some rearrangements to accommodate her on the ship.

“I saw a huge poster in the officers’ board room that said: ‘Why is a ship called a ‘she’?…She is absolutely uncontrollable without a man at the helm…’ Undoubtedly, it was a man’s world,” Nemichandra says.

She went on to become a chief designer and general manager at HAL.

Cut to 2023: A doctoral student in biotech at a premier university in Maharashtra has got a fellowship to pursue postdoc at her dream institute, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in the US. This opportunity would propel her career to great heights. However, she is not able to pursue it as her husband has a job in a different country. Now, she is applying for universities in that country instead.

Between the 1990s and this decade, various strategies — from research and affirmative action to policy decisions and schemes — have been planned, and some implemented, to enhance the participation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions.

As a result, the number of girls opting to study STEM has steadily increased. There have been some bright spots — 27 per cent of key executive positions on the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) 2013 mission to Mars were held by women. Top institutes like the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Indian Institute of Astrophysics are currently headed by eminent scientists Dr N Kalaiselvi and Prof Annapurni Subramaniam respectively.

However, no amount of cognisance and advocacy has been able to plug the ‘leaky pipeline’ — a metaphor used to describe the problem faced by women in STEM — where the system does not enable them to continue on to the higher rungs of the academic ladder.

While this trend is global, the shortage of women STEM professionals is acute in India. A 2019 UNESCO fact sheet reported that 30 per cent of the world’s science researchers were women. In India, this figure was less than 14 per cent. This is particularly stark, considering India has one of the highest proportions of female participation in STEM education — women make up nearly 43 per cent of the total STEM graduates, according to the All India Survey on Higher Education.

Diversity and inclusion

“This is mainly because there are more obstacles for women to establish themselves in STEM fields in the current sociocultural context,” says Smitha Subramanian, an assistant professor at Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

Aruna, an assistant executive engineer with the State Public Works Department, has lived this experience. When she opted for civil engineering — considered a male domain — conflict arose within her family, and continued in college with professors taunting her, the only female student. At work too, she found herself having to convince her superiors that she can execute work on the field.

Hurdles begin right after PhD for most women — they include a lack of mentorship and biases in evaluation of research and competence. A study published in Nature analysed 1,224 letters of recommendation from 54 countries for postdoc fellowships in geosciences and found that “female applicants are only half as likely to receive excellent letters vs good letters compared to male applicants, irrespective of the gender of the recommender.”

Assumptions about women’s priorities also contribute to a loss of opportunities. “There are implicit biases on the part of employers which are rooted in the preconceived notion that women choose family over career,” says Smitha.

Both male and female researchers generally get married and start a family at the time of their postdoc, but the consequences vary. “In my field, one has to spend about six to eight years in short-term contracts as a postdoc researcher before something more permanent comes by. This period coincides with marriage and conceiving. There is a direct conflict for women,” says Rijutha Jaganathan, a physics postdoc student in Denmark.

Women who take a break due to family commitments struggle with a lack of opportunity to re-enter academia. “One important reason for this is the age limit to get into permanent faculty positions which is around 35. It becomes practically impossible for women who take breaks for maternity and childcare,” says Prof Uma Ramakrishnan, one of the few molecular ecologists in the country.

While this is a stumbling block that everyone recognises, there are no guidelines so far to address it. Only a few institutes provide support such as childcare facilities.

The temporary nature of jobs and lack of policies that recognise family responsibilities are some other factors that contribute to women dropping out of the core workforce in STEM. There is also a demand for affirmative action in terms of paid parental leave for both fathers and mothers.

While new policies like the Science Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 recognise equity and inclusion as a core area, the realities deny women a level playing field.


One of the primary areas of inequity is the framework for evaluating academic and research credentials. “One cannot compare the progress of a person who has put in more years with that of a person who has taken a break. We should develop a rainbow framework,” says Prof Annapurni Subramaniam, director, Indian Institute of Astrophysics. She is the first woman director of the institute.

She also points to the lack of role models — women in leadership positions — due to which stereotyping scientists as men persists. “We should have women at all levels, so that we can achieve a pyramid model. Now, it is more like a pillar,” she says.

Gender budgeting is a powerful tool that can be used to promote the inclusion of women in STEM institutions, says Prof Govindan Rangarajan, director, Indian Institute of Science (IISc). “Special recruitment drives, funds to restart women’s careers, outreach through scholarships and fellowships, and back-to-work mentorship programmes can help women overcome the barriers,” he says. IISc is among the few science institutes that have proactive forums and facilities to enhance women’s participation.

The lack of a critical mass of women in research and academic institutions deprives them of familiarity and support in the work set-up. This has a cascading effect on networking that usually happens at conferences, meetings and university workshops. Gendered notions either do not allow them to attend these events or keep them from participating. As a result, they miss out on the opportunities that networking brings — knowing veterans from the field and information about career and grant opportunities.

Gender bias is subtle but it manifests in the responsibilities assigned to women, says Rijutha. The tasks of organising conferences and communication are mostly relegated to women. These do not pay dividends when it comes to advancing their careers.

Studies indicate that there is no conscious decision to limit women’s recruitment in STEM fields. “But there are not many proactive efforts to include women in decision-making and policymaking bodies,” says Dr Shailja Gupta, former senior adviser at the Office of Principal Scientific Adviser, Government of India.

Not having women at leadership levels has implications that go beyond creating inclusive workplaces. It could also lead to a gap in research. The book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, discusses the ‘gender data gap’ and its effects — the data our society collects is typically about men’s experiences.

This data gets used to allocate research funding and make policy decisions. A 2016 study by Yale researchers found that due to a lack of tests designed for women, they are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed after heart attacks. Similar gaps exist in the design of public spaces and technology.

Slow change

IT companies, where women’s representation is high compared to other fields, were among the first to create platforms to nurture gender diversity and inclusion. However, a study shows that women make up 51 per cent of entry-level IT recruits, 25 per cent of those in managerial positions but less than 1 per cent in the top level.

Adding to this are the numerous instances of women achievers not getting the due recognition they deserve. “The Matilda effect — a bias where a woman is ignored or denied credit — still lingers and manifests in different forms. We even hesitate to celebrate the achievements of women scientists,” says Prof Tuli Dey, Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology at Savithribai Phule University in Pune.

BiasWatchIndia, an online platform, has been documenting the representation of women in Indian science conferences, meetings and awards. “We have had discussions with professors and policymakers (about representation). But these discussions usually do not translate into major changes required to fix the issue,” says Shruti Muralidhar, neuroscientist and a co-founder of the platform.

The team has seen hostility, tone policing and a variety of other responses when they shared statistics on the representation of women in Indian STEM faculty on Twitter.

“Optics is a powerful incentive and to maintain a good image, many places make active efforts to be inclusive. However, not all of these efforts are sincere as it quickly becomes apparent as soon as any adversity strikes. Still, things are no doubt better in terms of access to science,” says researcher Nandita Jayaraj, also a team member of the thelifeofscience website.

Access to science education and careers has improved over the years. Women are carving a niche for themselves in the science start-up ecosystem. Yet, right from finding collaborators and investors to battling societal pressure, women entrepreneurs face a lot of hurdles. As a postdoc student, J Fathima Benazir co-founded Azooka Labs, a specialty fluorescent dye company, in 2016. While there was a lot of pressure from family and friends to opt for a stable profession, she was able to pursue her passion with a collaborator. “Everyone is appreciating me after I tasted success. But no one trusted my abilities when I started the company,” she says.

Affirmative action

The 20 per cent supernumerary quota in undergraduate programmes of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) presents a case of proactive measures working well in addressing the skewed gender ratio. Take IIT Madras for example. The representation of women in research is around 20 to 30 per cent in various disciplines here. “We are also trying to increase the ratio of women faculty,” says Prof Preeti Aghalayam, nodal officer, Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions, IIT Madras.

She also notes how gender influences placements. While at IIT Madras, the number of women graduating from all disciplines is on the rise, they are finding it difficult to get jobs in areas that are traditionally considered male domains.

Demonstrating how policy measures can help address this, the Karnataka government’s decision to hire 33 per cent women across departments other than emergency services has improved representation. Aruna says, “Now I see more women in civil engineering, which is a welcome development.”

Published 25 February 2023, 18:19 IST

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