The number of women in India who have opted for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) as a field of study has increased by 53,388 in the last three years — from 10,02,707 in 2017-18 to 10,56,095 in 2019-20. This is in contrast to the number of men who enrolled for studies in the field of STEM — from 12,48,062 in 2017-18 to 11,88,900 in 2019-20, according to the annual All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report, which indicates enrolment in undergraduate, Masters, and PhD-level programmes. But many women scientists and researchers believe that getting STEM education may not necessarily translate into jobs for women.
Many women drop out of a STEM career midway or quit completely, which is called the ‘leaky pipeline’. This could be related to various factors including, but not restricted to, the wage gap, lack of mentoring, gendered households, and workplace harassment. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2018-19 by the Ministry of Education, women constitute nearly 43 per cent of the total STEM enrolments in the country; however, the disparity becomes starker with subsequent qualifications. Only three per cent of women enrol in PhD in science and six per cent opt for a PhD in Engineering and Technology. Further, they account for only 14 per cent of the total scientists, engineers, technologists in research development institutions. This leads to fewer women reaching higher levels as professional engineers or scientists. The baby penalty is another systematic gender barrier that women who have babies face at the workplace regarding pay, career growth, or perception of competence.
Speaking to an online news platform, Nandita Jayaraj, science communicator and co-founder of the feminist science media project, The Life of Science said, “In Indian STEM, the primary concern has never been with the number of women graduates, but with the proportion of those who ultimately land STEM jobs. While it’s always nice to have more young women studying STEM, these enlarged numbers should not be looked at as a victory; on the contrary, it should be an alarm bell for us. How many of these women will get STEM jobs? A very tiny fraction.”
Historically, science was built on exclusion based on gender, caste and race. The lack of research on and under-representation of women and the LGBTQIA+ community in STEM contributes to the sense of invisibility that further marginalises them. Earlier this year, the Indian Academy of Sciences released a book, Founders of Modern Science. Out of 16 names, 15 were of cisgender men making it a male dominated playing field and ignoring all scientific achievements by women.
Financial sector analyst at CGAP and co-author of the 2019 World Bank report on advancing women’s participation in STEM, Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy, said that male domination has created a “chilly climate” in the field. Speaking about the socio-cultural barriers and biases, Kumaraswamy pointed out that biases can be implicit such as boxing women as caregivers or as incapable of excelling in science or mathematics. “It’s prominent in recruiters, faculty, parents, cisgender male peers about women’s capability in STEM. Explicit bias is seen in listings such as ‘married candidates need not apply’ or ‘women need not apply’ or ‘if you need this job, you need to remain unmarried.’ Also, in designing the system in a way that is not supportive of anyone who doesn’t identify as a cisgender man.” Not including female restrooms, professors asking men to answer questions in class to excluding women from men’s bonding sessions such as golf sessions, are some of the many ways to ensure opportunities for advancement are not available to them, “They are not saying that you can’t be here but they behave in a way that alienates and excludes you,” Kumaraswamy added. “Just imagine if we had only opened up the space for all those people who had been excluded. The world would have been much richer and technologically advanced. Society is a lot poorer when science is made only by men,” said Kumaraswamy