Women make up nearly 43 per cent of the total graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in India - one of the highest in the world - but just 14 per cent of scientists, engineers, and technologists in research development institutions and universities. The under-representation of women in STEM majors is common globally, but India presents a particularly curious case. Here, even though the number of women enrolling in STEM programmes has been increasing year on year, the rising education levels aren't translating into employability or jobs.  

This is in stark contrast to many developed countries like the US (34 per cent), UK (38 per cent), Germany (27 per cent), or Sweden (35 per cent), where fewer women study STEM at the tertiary level. For example, Sweden has an education and employability rate of 35 and 34 per cent respectively for women in STEM, suggesting that even though the country trains fewer women in STEM than India, it is able to employ nearly all of them.

Hurdles at many steps

When it comes to women's under-representation in STEM in India, two major issues stand out. One relates to the entry and retention of women in science, and the other relates to the differences in career attainment among male and female scientists in the country, with women showing lower levels of attainment vis-à-vis their male peers.

The problem of losing qualified women in India starts at the level of higher education. Studies have found that despite a high tertiary female enrollment ratio in STEM subjects, students' choices within the subjects still remain highly gendered, with women being particularly underrepresented in math-intensive fields. "Women may believe they are more likely to get higher grades if they study humanities rather than STEM, while men believe they are more likely to gain parental approval for their college major choices if they study STEM," says a study conducted by Ashoka University scholars Aparajita Dasgupta and Anisha Sharma. 

As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2018-19, just three per cent of women enroll in PhD in science and only six per cent opt for a PhD in Engineering and Technology. This 'leaky pipeline' in STEM means that fewer women end up reaching higher levels to be selected as professional scientists later.

Another aspect of the problem relates to the retention of women post entry into their fields after education. This is especially true in the context of a large number of women researchers, who after having received their doctoral degrees, either don't pursue a career in science or end up taking a break in employment after starting their jobs. "This is reflected in the larger difference between the number of women and men doctorates pursuing post-doctoral research in comparison with the differences in numbers at the doctoral level, or the percentage of female scientists in tenured positions being lower than the percentage of females holding doctoral degrees," a study conducted by Niti Aayog states. 

Illustration by Farzana Cooper.

There also exists a huge gender disparity when one compares career attainment among male and female scientists in terms of nature and duration of employment contracts, rank and seniority. Data confirms that few women make it to senior positions in the country’s premier institutions and that fewer still hold academic chairs. For example, at the Indian Institute of Technology(IIT)-Bombay, only 25 of the 143 professors (17.5 per cent) are women. In IIT Madras, this number stands at 10.2 per cent with only 31 of the 304 professors in the institute being women. To date, none of the IITs, or prestigious institutions like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, or Mumbai's Tata Institute of Fundamental Research has had a woman director.

In June this year, IIT-B became the first institute in the country to set up a chair professorship for women. However, just four of its existing chairs are held by women. At IIT-Madras, of the 53 chairs, just three are held by women. At IISC, just one of the nine chairs is held by a woman scientist. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) too has very few women scientists.  While the percentage of women employees in its administration is 17.6 per cent, the strength of women in scientific/technical positions stands at just 7.18 per cent.  No woman has headed it since it was founded in 1963.

Women are also unrecognized for their scientific achievements, studies show.  A 2009 report on the breakup of gender-wise breakup of data related to three important national awards - SSB, Young Scientist, and National Bio Science award - revealed a consistent marginalization of female scientists and technologists.

Solving the Equation

The absence of women in STEM is not merely a question of skill inadequacy, or aptitude, but also a product of assigned stereotypical gender roles. The gender roles associated with learning subjects like science and mathematics are so ingrained that 76 per cent of Indian women working in STEM believe that their male co-workers have a genetic advantage over them in mathematics and science. This, even as, research points to girls scoring similarly or slightly higher than boys in examinations and assessments in maths and science.  

Research also points to gender bias beginning early, and the effect it has on children's future career choices and interests. STEM fields are often viewed as masculine, and teachers and parents often underestimate girls' math abilities from kindergarten. This often leads to a 'confidence gap' early on in girls, who then become more critical of their skills and hold them to higher standards.

Women also continue to face feelings of inadequacy and not fitting in all along their STEM career spectrum. In India, women especially quit on their careers mid-way facing the double burden of balancing work and family commitments. A survey of women in science by Niti Aayog found that 30 per cent of them felt that their career affected family commitments and household responsibilities adversely. Additionally, 47 per cent of the respondents cited family care as a reason for refusing a challenging opportunity in their careers.

Women in STEM also report experiencing subtle biases in their workspaces. According to the Key Global Workforce Insights, nearly 81 per cent of Indian women in STEM faced gender bias in performance evaluations and a large proportion felt that their companies would not offer them top positions. 

With fewer role models, peers and leaders, women also report experiencing exclusion and isolation in male-dominated workspaces. Moreover, lack of suitable benefits like travel allowance, lodging and maternity benefits also dissuade many from pursuing careers in STEM.

STEM-ming the gap

The leaky STEM pipeline starts early and persists throughout. As the India case shows, it is not just enough to keep feeding the pipeline by increasing the number of female students. It is imperative to work towards breaking gender stereotypes through early investment in reskilling and the promotion of STEM education. Apart from making STEM education more fun and engaging,, introduction to female role models and mentors can help change stereotypical perceptions related to these subjects inspire more girls to choose and work in the area.

In addition, to increase female retention numbers, STEM employers should take a top-down, multi-pronged approach in creating a more attractive and supportive environment for women. A 2016-17 NITI Aayog report, designed to understand the reasons for the loss of trained female scientists had found that to be able to work longer in STEM, women scientists want age relaxation in eligibility criteria, an extension of benefits like housing, transport, and medical help, as well as flexibility in their job contracts that allows them more work-life flexibility. 

"Career breaks need to be accommodated, as women scientists have dual commitments. Seniority based on the total number of years of work experience or service rather than continuous service may help to retain talent and experience by allowing for re-entry of women scientists, which would otherwise be lost permanently," the recommendations say.

Cognizant of the gender gap that exists in scientific research, the new draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, currently being drafted by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), aims to address some of these issues. The government is looking at incorporating a system of grading institutes depending on the enrolment of women and the advancement of the careers of women faculty and scientists. It envisions that at least 30 per cent of decision-making bodies in the field, including selection and evaluation committees, to comprise of women in the future.

The draft also envisions the promotion of more women scientists to leadership positions in order to inspire young women to pursue careers in science - a move that could inspire more young women to pursue careers in science, as well as get women scientists to get more recognition for their work. To improve the retention of women in STEM research, the policy also proposes flexible work timings, and adequate, gender-neutral parental leave.

All these are steps in the right direction. The under-representation of women especially in the science and technology sector makes them especially vulnerable to the risk of bring displaced by technology.  As per the International Monetary Fund, about 11 per cent of the female workforce faces a high risk of losing their jobs to automation on account of unequal ownership of STEM skills and capabilities.

Considering the importance of technology in future growth and innovation, it is vital that policies aimed at educating and retaining women in the STEM sector be encouraged. Giving women equal opportunities will not just help narrow the gender pay gap in the field, but also enhance their economic security and well-being - helping employ the full potential of the country’s skilled female labour force.