The fundamental discoveries in the field of science and technology in the last century have transformed the way humankind can unleash its potential with significant involvement from the government, academia, industry, and the social sector. Despite this overall accomplishment, it is surprising to realize that women across the world face multiple challenges. These challenges range from equal pay to access to quality education. All-India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report 2019-20 indicates that despite women accounting for 43% of graduates in STEM. Only 14% percent of them are pursuing scientific research in universities and institutions.
In today’s time, women have been more likely to receive an undergraduate degree than their male counterparts. However, only half of the women are earning degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in comparison to men. As per a study conducted in 14 countries, it was reported that the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and Doctor’s degree in a science-related field is 18%, 8%, and 2% respectively. At the same time, the percentages of male students graduating are 37%, 18%, and 6%.
Gender equality is a global priority. Equal participation in science for women and girls can play a vital role in ensuring diversity. Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals.
Underrepresentation of women in STEM: A deeper problem
Many of us are familiar with the name Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics. But it is highly unlikely to know the name of Dr Asima Chatterjee, the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Science from an Indian university or A. Lalitha, the first woman engineer from the country. Curiously, the male-to-female ratio for Nobel Prizes has been limited to 17:1. Men have accounted for a whopping 94.5 percent of all prizes awarded since 1901. Female role models in the fields of science, math, or engineering are minuscule for young female students to follow.
In India, the problem of losing qualified girls starts at the level of secondary education. Studies have found that despite a high tertiary female enrollment ratio in STEM subjects, students’ choices within the subjects remain highly gendered. Women being particularly underrepresented in math-intensive fields. A study conducted by Ashoka University scholars Aparajita Dasgupta and Anisha Sharma indicates that women may believe they are more likely to get higher grades if they study humanities rather than STEM. Men believe they are more likely to gain parental approval for their college major choices if they study STEM.
Gender stereotypes also lead to pay gaps and unequal treatment from their coworkers. At workplaces where men outnumber women, the experiences with workplace discrimination and concerns about gender inequities become more pronounced.
The imminent need for representation
Every nation needs the talent and creative ability of both men and women to stay competitive globally. Women are currently making a smaller part of the science and engineering workforce. It is significantly affecting productivity and innovations at every level.
The gender gap only widens as women progress in their academic careers. The work of female researchers is often underrepresented in high-profile journals. It is also known that women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues. They represent 33.3% of all researchers. As a result, female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers.
The impact of artificial intelligence and the digital economy continues to grow. It is time for women to be a part of this growth in Industry 4.0 to prevent traditional gender biases. According to UNESCO Science Report 2021, women still account for only 28% of engineering graduates. The needs and perspectives of women are highly likely to be overlooked in the design of products.
Keeping in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and meeting the promise of the 2030 Agenda to “leave no one behind”, addressing the gender gap in science is crucial.
How to attract and retain more women in STEM?
Eradicating the gender biases
Misrepresentation in the form of male examples of professionals such as engineers and scientists and female examples of teachers, and nurses tend to frame people’s aspirations from an early age. It is imperative to include variety in representation and in role models in order to present a balanced view of the professions. Further, parents and teachers should jointly work towards eradicating the gender biases towards stereotyping professions based on their gender. This can be done by strengthening STEM curricula and linking them to real-world situations and role models. For enforcing this idea, interactive experiences, project-based learning, and other strategies can be used to generate more appeal in girls.
Providing Mentorship, skills development, and networking opportunities
Pieces of evidence from across the industry suggest that support in the form of strong mentorships and network opportunities for women tends to assist them with pay increases and higher levels of career satisfaction. Therefore, it becomes more important in workplaces to promote persistence in science fields among undergraduates. The private sector can contribute hugely by providing financial support through scholarships, networks, grants, and other initiatives. Further, providing training focused on digital and other STEM skills, and offering internship opportunities targeting secondary school girls and undergrads. At the same time, male colleagues must be able to dismantle gender stereotypes. Moreover, offer a wider ecosystem for their female colleagues to express themselves better.
Retain women in the workforce by improving employment prospects and retention policies
As discussed above, women in science are significantly underrepresented in the workforce and are paid less. Additionally, women are also known to have fewer chances of obtaining promotions. In the first half of the year 2022, out of 18 startups that entered the unicorn club, only five had women founders. Here, the fundamental problems in participation and strategies become visible. Barriers to recruiting and upskilling women become more prevalent. Moreover, certain institutional and legal obstructions tend to pose problems for most women.
Therefore, it is time to introduce policies that encourage retention such as flexible work, paid family leave, and childcare support. Such policies are known to benefit women, men, and employers alike.
Ideas That Inspire
Several companies are supporting technology as part of the CSR activity to promote startups with the intent of creating larger social benefits. These companies/projects can attain the required organic growth with the required financial support from CSR funding and continue to nurture the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The incubators could also play a role in strengthening innovative technological entrepreneurship which can contribute to societal impact at large. Further, more women should be encouraged to take up entrepreneurship . It might otherwise be considered involving risk and uncertainty especially for women. Companies should also have certain criteria to choose the kind of startups they would like to fund. Women-led startups should be promoted and biases in terms of funding, minimized.
Centre for Advancing Girls in Science program:
With an aim to foster science learning at an early age, Honeywell with Avasara started the Centre for Advancing Girls in Science program that, through an experiential learning approach, educates students from underprivileged backgrounds from Indian government schools. It has helped instill the knowledge of science in underprivileged girl students. Further, it has helped them develop creative thinking and problem-solving abilities, thus creating successful STEM career pathways for them. The program also tries to cultivate curiosity, nurture creativity, and instill confidence among girl students of the age group 11-18 years.
Bridging the digital divide is important in the current era. Moreover, the youth of the country need to be upskilled technologically with specialized skills that meet present and future industry demands. By promoting STEM education with a special emphasis on educating girls and women in STEM, Honeywell has so far impacted around 15000+ youth who were inducted from the most disadvantaged communities across the country. Such initiatives serve as an inspiration for the students, and the future workforce who struggle with affordability, access, and availability of infrastructure in their region. Honeywell in association with ICT Academy envisions women improving industry efficiency and productivity through their expertise in skills such as RPA, big data, cloud, AI among others. Students are assured placement and job security so that they can thrive and contribute greatly in the changing face of the workplace, to the holistic and sustainable development of the country.
Implemented by UNESCO and UN-Women, The International Day of Women and Girls in Science provides an opportunity to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls. 2023 marks a critical time in history. Supporting girls and women to pursue their dreams becomes more crucial than ever. For achieving full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, all that’s required is a change in mindsets. Further, the creation of a more supportive ecosystem across homes, schools, universities, and workplaces. It can be done by institutional change and targeted policies in a combination of short- and long-term measures.
Losing the contributions of millions of girls and women towards innovation and technology can prove detrimental to the future. Humanity needs science to survive and thrive. As one’s background and identity inspire questions about the world, diversity in science is important to affect all sorts of people. Inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels right from early childhood to primary, secondary, tertiary, technical and vocational training levels will improve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls to make crucial contributions to the economic development of the world.
About the author:
Pooja Thakran is currently working as Sr. Director – Corporate Communications & CSR for Honeywell managing communications for the global engineering and India workforces as well as Heading the CSR Foundation of Honeywell. She is adept at crafting communications that strengthen the reputation and has designed CSR program strategies that help build meaningful impact in the communities.