Men have traditionally dominated the sciences worldwide, and this holds true for STEM fields even today. Less than 30% of scientific researchers worldwide are women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). In India, only 14% of scientists, engineers and technologists are women. This is despite the fact that nearly 43% of all graduates in India are women and that 32% of students are STEM graduates (2018).
There are many reasons that prevent Indian women from pursuing sciences and realising their potential. Among them are lack of early childhood exposure and opportunities. Our society conditions us to believe that boys will grow up to be engineers and women will grow up to be teachers. Girls rarely receive chess sets or magnets as birthday gifts just as boys are seldom given dolls and kitchen kits. Does this mean that men cannot grow up to be chefs and nurses and women cannot become math wizards or physicists? Much of this societal conditioning has its roots in a culture of patriarchy and preconceived notions of what women ought to do and ought not to do. Taking even a small step against such established conventions requires enormous conviction and courage on the part of an individual.
When women do, in fact, swim against such tides, the rewards are often still at a distance, on the horizon. Nearly 47% women in science cited family care as a reason for refusing a challenging opportunity in their careers, according to a 2016-17 Niti Aayog report.
Biases about gender roles mean women in science battle a ‘double-burden syndrome’ wherein they take breaks when getting married, during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as other familial responsibilities such as looking after ageing and unwell parents. While this is a setback for career women, it is especially problematic for women in STEM where such gaps can be detrimental to making progress in their research and pursuit.
The silver lining in this scenario is that attitudes and mindsets are constantly changing. This is gradually becoming true for women in sciences, and especially for women in STEM as organisations and government policies are beginning to shift in favour of women.
Several government schemes such as the Vigyan Jyoti Scheme, Unnat Bharat Abhiyan programme, Indo-US fellowship for women in STEMM, women-centric programmes under the Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing (KIRAN) and the Biotechnology Career Advancement and Reorientation (Bio-Care) scheme are initiatives to bridge the gender gap and boost opportunities for women. Many tech companies aim to have inclusive and gender-balanced workforces, and have policies to recruit women.
Even as these baby steps are being taken, it is pertinent that we do not lose sight of the goal: women in STEM does not mean simply boosting the numbers of women in the field of sciences, but also that we encourage women to have a holistic and balanced life while choosing their pursuits in the realm of sciences. The idea is not to alienate men, but to be more sensitive and nurturing of the women who choose science.