Women make up only 28% of the workforce in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college. The gender gaps are exceptionally high in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, like computer science and engineering. Read here to understand the gender gap in STEM.
Despite attempts to increase the number of women working in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), this issue of underrepresentation has persisted.
Fighting the gender pay gap and outdated assumptions, more women are increasingly seeking and succeeding in engineering and mathematics, two of the most profitable STEM areas.
Throughout their education, girls, and women are systematically guided away from science and math, which restricts their access to, preparedness for, and opportunity to work in these disciplines as adults.
Women in STEM
A significant gender gap has persisted throughout the years at all levels of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines all over the world.
Even though women have made tremendous progress toward increasing their participation in higher education, they are still under-represented in these fields.
- Women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women.
- In cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals (22%) is a woman.
- Despite a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics.
- Female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers. Their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals and they are often passed over for promotion.
Why there is a gender gap in STEM?
The number of women in science and engineering is growing, yet men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions. Why is this so?
- Girls’ achievements and interests in Math and Science are shaped by the environment around them. Hence, societal beliefs and the growth environment around them influence the future.
- Negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities compared to boys in math can indeed measurably lower girls’ test performance. Such stereotypes can lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time.
- The issue of self-assessment, or how we view our abilities, is another area where cultural factors have been found to limit girls’ interest in mathematics and mathematically challenging careers.
- One of the largest gender differences in cognitive abilities is found in the area of spatial skills, with boys and men consistently outperforming girls and women. Spatial skills are considered by many people to be important for success in engineering and other scientific fields.
- The foundation for a STEM career is laid early in life, but scientists and engineers are made in colleges and universities.
- Women are less satisfied with the academic workplace and more likely to leave it earlier in their careers than their male counterparts are.
- Most people associate science and math fields with “male” and humanities and arts fields with “female”.
- Not only are people more likely to associate math and science with men than with women, people often hold negative opinions of women in “masculine” positions, like scientists or engineers.
Women in STEM in India
In India, nearly 43% of STEM graduates are women, as opposed to other developed nations like the United States, Canada, and the UK, where there are fewer women – 34%, 31%, and 38%, respectively – studying STEM at the tertiary level.
As per the annual All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report, which indicates enrolment in undergraduate, Master, and PhD-level programs, the number of women in India who have opted for STEM courses has increased from 10,02,707 in 2017-18 to 10,56,095 in 2019-2020.
In India, one in three research papers is being written by a female author in over 186 fields, as per the Scopus database.
- Women are almost on par with their male counterparts in subjects such as dentistry, psychology, and humanities, where for every two male authors there is at least one female author.
Yet, the turnaround for women’s participation in STEM-related jobs in the country is currently as low as 14%.
- The reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs include persistent institutional gender biases, strictly defined gender norms, patriarchal culture, etc.
At the school level, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) launched the Vigyan Jyoti scheme in 2020.
- Under the scheme, schools were directed to conduct regular special lectures, classes, and science camps as a way of encouraging female students, especially those in classes 9 to 12, to pursue higher education in STEM.
The Government announced scholarships such as Pragati through the All India Council for Technical Education, making it easier for girls to access technical education at the undergraduate and diploma levels.
To support the development of a gender-equitable ecosystem within higher education and research institutions, the DST launched a pilot project – Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions (GATI).
DST also launched the Consolidation of University Research for Innovation and Excellence (CURIE) initiative, which provides support to women universities in improving their Research & Development (R&D) facilities.
For women researchers interested in undertaking R&D activities, Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) formulated SERB-POWER (Promoting Opportunities for Women in Exploratory Research) as a funding framework that aimed at providing financial assistance through grants and fellowships, enabling women to pursue their STEM research projects.
The Biotechnology Career Advancement and Re-orientation Programme (BioCARe), was also undertaken by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) as a step forward to encourage women scientists to take up biotechnology research.
DST’s “Indo-U.S. Fellowship for Women in STEM” launched in collaboration with the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) in the United States (US).
Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology (WEST), a new I-STEM (Indian Science Technology and Engineering facilities Map) initiative called “Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology (WEST)” was launched in 2022.
- The WEST program will cater to women with a STEM background and empower them to contribute to the science, technology, and innovation ecosystem.
- Through the WEST initiative, I-STEM shall provide a separate platform to scientifically inclined women researchers, scientists, and technologists for pursuing research in basic or applied sciences in frontier areas of science and engineering.
Global initiatives for Women in STEM
Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will make a crucial contribution not only to the economic development of the world but to progress across all the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science (IDWGIS) is observed on February 11th each year since 2015.
- The day is observed by the United Nations to promote equal access and participation of women in STEM fields.
- The theme for 2023 is Innovate. Demonstrate. Elevate. Advance. Sustain. (I.D.E.A.S.)
IDWGIS aims to connect the International Community to Women and Girls in Science, strengthening the ties between science, policy, and society for strategies oriented toward the future.
Other international days observed by the UN to promote the growth and education of women are:
- International Women’s Day (8 March)
- Girls in ICT Day (22 April)
- International Day of the Girl Child (11 October)
- International Day of Rural Women (15 October)
- World Science Day for Peace and Development (10 November)
- International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25 November)
Women scientists shaping history
India’s rich history is replete with examples of several great scientists who have brought immense pride to the nation. Among them are several women scientists who have contributed significantly to various science disciplines.
- Kadambini Ganguly (1861-1923) was India’s first female doctor and practitioner of western medicine.
- Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi (1865-1887) was the first Indian woman physician and the first woman to have graduated with a two-year degree in Western Medicine in the United States.
- Janaki Ammal (1897-1984) was the first Indian scientist to have received the Padma Shri Award in 1977, who went on to occupy the reputed post of the director-general of the Botanical Survey of India.
- Kamala Sohonie (1912-1998) was the first Indian woman to have a Ph.D. degree in the scientific discipline. She was the first female student of Prof. CV Raman, who was the then IISc director. She discovered that every cell of a plant tissue contained the enzyme ‘cytochrome C’ which was involved in the oxidation of all plant cells.
- Rajeshwari Chatterjee (1922-2010) was the First woman engineer from the state of Karnataka, who received a government scholarship to study abroad in 1946.
- Kalpana Chawla (1962-2003) was the first astronaut of Indian origin to have forayed into space. She first flew on a Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator.
- Indira Hinduja is an Indian gynecologist, obstetrician, and infertility specialist who pioneered the Gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) technique resulting in the birth of India’s first GIFT baby on January 4, 1988.
- Aditi Pant was the first Indian woman to visit Antarctica in 1983 as a part of the Indian expedition to study Geology and Oceanography.
- Tessy Thomas known as the ‘Missile Woman’ of India is the Director General of Aeronautical Systems and the former Project Director for Agni-IV missile in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). She is the first woman scientist to head a missile project in India.
Globally, numerous women scientists and engineers have helped shape the work we see today. Some of the pioneers in STEM were:
- Marie Curie was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She discovered radium and polonium and won two Nobel prizes.
- Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist contributed to the unraveling of the helical structure of DNA.
- Janet Taylor designed instruments for nautical navigation during the 1800s. She ran a manufacturing business for nautical instruments, many of which she designed herself; and embarked on the business of compass adjusting at the height of the controversies generated by magnetic deviation and distortions on iron ships.
- Beatrice Shilling was a daredevil motorcyclist and engineer who contributed greatly to the repair of Rolls-Royce engines during World War II.
- Dorothy Hodgkin discovered the structure of insulin. In 1964, Dorothy won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for “her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”. She was only the third woman to have won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry after Marie Curie and her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and the fifth woman to win a science Nobel Prize.
- Katherine Johnson was a mathematician who worked on NASA’s early space missions. She was one of the “computers” who solved equations by hand during NASA’s early years and those of its precursor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
- Payne-Gaposchkin was a woman of many firsts: the first to receive a Ph.D. from Radcliffe College, the first to be a professor at Harvard and the first to discover the composition of stars.
Giving women equal opportunities to pursue and thrive in STEM careers helps narrow the gender pay gap, enhances women’s economic security, ensures a diverse and talented STEM workforce, and prevents biases in these fields and the products and services they produce.
Governments and global organizations should ensure the necessities to encourage the involvement of Women in STEM:
- Give girls and women the skills and confidence to succeed in math and science.
- Improve STEM education and support for girls starting in early education.
- Work to attract, recruit and retain women into STEM majors and fields in colleges and universities.
- Improve job hiring, retention, and promotion pathways and intentionally inclusive cultures.
- Small improvements by physics and computer science departments, such as providing a broader overview of the field in introductory courses, can add up to big gains in female student recruitment and retention.
Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and, therefore, also half of its potential. Gender equality, besides being a fundamental human right, is essential to achieve peaceful societies, with full human potential and sustainable development.
Also read: Women in Politics and Women in Judiciary
-Article written by Swathi Satish
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