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Girls, are you ready to take up STEM jobs?

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

STEM education is increasingly becoming a part of the curriculum of school students, and rightly so. STEM is an acronym referring to four disciplines -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

It has to be borne in mind that STEM education is different from the regular teaching of science and mathematics. It is a specialized field which encompasses the application of these four disciplines to the real world, constituting an integrated, applied approach and cohesive learning techniques.

While education in STEM is being imparted widely in educational institutions, some disturbing trends have come to light in that women have been found to be grossly under-represented in this arena, with STEM being seen as a ‘man’s world’. In India, just about 14% of the STEM workforce is female, as compared to a world average of 28.8%.

This does not mean that girls are not interested in pursuing this field. According to the World Bank, in terms of percentages, there are more Indian female graduates (43%) in STEM at the tertiary level than in developed nations like the United States (34%), United Kingdom (38%), Germany (27%) and France (32%). The problem is that even though young girls are choosing STEM courses, they are not pursuing careers in STEM-related jobs.

Why fewer girls take up STEM jobs

Women comprise a mere 26% of India’s STEM workforce, with the percentage of female researchers being among the lowest in the world, at just 13.9%. Women represent only 9% of fellows in the three major Indian science academies, namely Indian National Science Academy, Indian Academy of Sciences and The National Academy of Sciences, and hold less than 5% of academic department chair posts.

There are several reasons why women do not make much headway in STEM, with the foremost reason being the ingrained gender bias in Indian society. Women continue to be impeded by age-old perceptions of gender roles. To this day, many families discourage their daughters from pursuing careers in ‘demanding’ jobs such as engineering, aeronautics, space research, and so forth.

The male-skewed job market serves to reinforce the perverse motivation for families to educate their daughters in sciences in order to increase their marriage market value and not their labour market value.

The high drop-out rate

The few women who do manage to have STEM careers often drop out mid-way owing to family pressures and life situations. Marriage, followed by childbirth, literally spells the end of many a promising career when it comes to women.

Childbirth, particularly, forces women to take a break, and they find it hard to get back and pursue their careers in a demanding field like STEM. Moreover, women often have to undertake the entire domestic burden, along with professional responsibilities, as most men in India still shy away from participating in domestic chores.

Women who do manage to make a place for themselves in the STEM job market are often discouraged from aiming higher in their chosen career path. They tend to be directed toward less technical and less lucrative STEM fields, thus missing out opportunities for career advancement. Discrimination against women scientists in hiring, promotion, and research funding is well-documented.

Shockingly, men in the establishment are still not accepting of women in senior positions. Women tend to get patronized and relegated to junior roles. Many men are still uncomfortable reporting to a woman, and accepting her as their work superior. And then there is the problem of women being subjected to hostile working conditions, with sexual and professional harassment being rampant.

Young girls who want to take up jobs in STEM need to persist and fight against discriminatory practices in order to gain their rightful place in this field. Time and time again, it has been proved that girls often do better than boys in academics. It is a reasonable expectation that they will do equally well in the field of STEM.

All they need is a level playing field.

(Suneeta Kaul is a journalist, having started her career with The Economic Times in New Delhi. She has worked with several publications in various cities since then, and has also done a stint in the corporate world. Keenly interested in current events, she is a champion of social justice, equality and human rights, besides being a gender and street animal welfare activist.)


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