Why so few? Bridging the STEM gender gap

Creating a level playing field and treating women on par with men by dismantling deeply ingrained gender stereotypes and empowering them to pursue careers in STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) professions.

“There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman”

– Vera Rubin, astronomer, who discovered dark matter and was a strong proponent of women in science.

Today, India has one of the largest young workforces in the world, yet the size of the population with knowledge and skills in STEM fields remains low. With most industrial sectors undergoing rapid digital transformation, a stark demand-supply gap is emerging for technologically skilled employees. Excluding women from the technical field is only accentuating the problem further.

Research and studies also show that the Indian economy could grow by an additional 60% or US$2.9 trillion by 2025, if we can achieve parity between the number of women and men participating in the workforce.

In India, not many women have traditionally chosen the path of STEM education or built a career around it. The reasons are manifold, including entrenched stereotypes and social biases, besides infrastructure policies and low-powered incentives.

Without a doubt, this is an area that requires deep deliberation with ensuing positive action. For any organisation, simply communicating a commitment to diversity in STEM isn’t enough. Change must begin from within, with each organisation working towards enabling, empowering and engaging women in STEM.

Analyzing the barriers

It is interesting to note that as much as 40% of Indians who graduate in STEM disciplines are women, yet they constitute only 14% of the total 28,000 scientists and engineers in research and development institutions in India. In order to boost the representation of women in STEM, it is vital to analyse the factors hindering their participation in IT/technology-related fields:

Barrier 1: Cultural and historical gender stereotypes

Historically, women have been erroneously viewed as unequipped for domains that require intellect. This particularly led to gender disparities in STEM. Women were also not until very recently associated with professions like engineering that required extensive fieldwork and were not viewed as “stable talent”, having to make tough career choices/decisions at every stage of life.

Empathy, which today is considered an essential quality for the service industry, teamwork and leadership, was seen as a weakness in women as opposed to a purely systematic and analytical approach to work.

Hence the gap in pay, opportunities, promotions, etc., putting women at an overall disadvantage professionally. In today’s world, we can certainly count our steps forward with women reaching the pinnacle of success, yet there are job roles dominated by men, and STEM is one such area where women are still underrepresented.

Barrier 2: Lack of support in the home environment and double burden syndrome

The importance of family support in shaping a woman’s education and career path cannot be emphasised enough. The lack of it, along with societal and cultural biases, is a predominant reason for women being held back from pursuing careers in STEM.

Further, women tend to face the ‘double burden syndrome’ in which they are expected to take on the dual responsibilities of work as well as home. Learning to master the balancing act, women still find themselves at crossroads at every life milestone – marriage, kids, etc. -- of either continue working in a supportive structure or quitting to fulfil the demands of their multifarious roles in the household.

Barrier 3: Lack of infrastructure

Today, of the 11% colleges in India exclusively reserved for women, the majority offer programs in Arts and Commerce rather than Science. Again, this is often erroneously attributed to the premise that men are inherently better at science-related disciplines in comparison to women, thereby leading to inadequate educational and training avenues for women.

Barrier 4: Paucity of women role models

Unfortunately, history records very few female geniuses across the spectrum of academics and various career paths. Women professionals have therefore had very few female role models to look up to.

Solving the Equation

Closing the gender gap has the potential to improve the industry valuation by several billion dollars and add a massive number of jobs to these industries. Greater participation by women in the workforce will not just increase the size of the workforce, but also lead to higher productivity and wages over time. This will raise family incomes and deliver additional social and economic benefits.

Government programs

Various schemes and programs introduced by the government are already bearing fruit, as can be observed from the greater numbers of girls in the education system. Government schemes, such as Udaan, seek to provide female students studying in grades XI and XII with free online resources from CBSE.

These resources can help students prepare for entrance exams for admission to premier engineering colleges. However, there is still a lot to be done.

Since exclusion begins in childhood, the stereotypes have to be addressed through awareness campaigns, educating parents on ways to encourage their children to explore the fields of their choice, including STEM education.

Increasing STEM education opportunities

Increasing the number of institutions dedicated to scientific research and science education will bring learning and development opportunities to a greater number of students. This, in turn, will enable technology companies to recruit from a richer talent pool.

Building an equal opportunity workplace

Organisations can strengthen their potential by devising dedicated strategy for increasing the representation of women in STEM careers, providing them with an enabling workplace culture.

Women are great people managers with the potential to deliver excellence consistently. Recognising that, the corporate sector can also play a key role in breaking the negative stereotypes about women’s capacity in STEM fields.

This is made possible by adopting inclusive hiring policies. There should be a conscious talent search in industry and job forums for providing opportunities to women. Also, well-established diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies are necessary to engage, empower, and enable women to excel across the STEM spectrum.

Business strategies must include well-defined markers to identify, acknowledge, and address conscious and unconscious bias; and implement targeted interventions accordingly.

Other initiatives include learning and development programs in STEM, manager sensitisation programs, internal forums and talks by women in STEM leadership to share their journeys and experiences, celebrate successes, and build professional networks.

This coaching and mentoring – especially with role-modelling at the senior leadership level – can help in bridging the gender gap and inclusion chasm in STEM-related job roles.

Creating a support ecosystem through flexible work models

The current pandemic has taught whole economies to work from home. The biases against flexible working models have already been shot down. This has paved the way for corporates to offer flexible working terms to women. If sustained, this can go a long way in encouraging their greater participation in STEM fields.

Independent STEM forums

There is a growing presence of independent forums dedicated to supporting gender diversity throughout technology career paths, thereby building a talent pool to fulfil the industry-wide demand for skilled technologists.

These forums partner with organisations to mobilise support and resources to provide training, mentoring, networking and professional guidance and opportunities in STEM to girls and seasoned professionals. They also connect leaders and employees around the globe to learn about women’s career journeys in technology.

The future of STEM is inclusive

Creating gender equity in STEM is matter of mustering the strength to reform the system and transform our culture. The government, industry fora, and associations are already putting in efforts to create opportunities for women in STEM and providing them the support they require.

Women’s educational progress should be celebrated and if we can successfully mobilise women’s participation in the STEM workforce, this will help create diverse, happy and more productive workplaces, enabling everyone to do their life’s best work.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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