Caroline Herschel, an astronomer born in Germany, discovered eight comets and three nebulae and was praised by the King of Prussia and London’s Royal Astronomical Society. Yet she remained obscure compared with her brother, William, who discovered the planet Uranus.
History is filled with the achievements of men, but there exist gaps through which women’s contributions were overlooked and made obscure. The Representation Project revealed that women are represented in only 0.5% of recorded history, proving the exclusion of their narratives and contributions.
Female identity within science is filled with such stories of forced obscurity. Their contributions were largely ignored because culturally pre-determined and reinforced feminine behavior does not allow women to participate in sciences, typically considered to be men’s domain.
Historically, women’s education included material to help them become better wives and mothers, the only roles prescribed to women, which eventually came to be known as the only roles they could perform.
But with the onset of democratic dawns in many nations across the globe, employment, previously a right for men alone, became the beacon of hope for women to achieve the equality they had fought for; but it hasn’t been easy.
STEM fields include education and employment in areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Prosperous STEM fields represent economic prosperity for countries: workers in science and engineering tend to be well-paid and enjoy better job security than other workers. Scientists and engineers play a central role in solving global challenges, such as finding cures for deadly diseases, tackling global warming, and developing renewable energy sources. Solving such global issues affects people directly, which is why women must be part of this process.
However, women comprise only 28% of the workforce in STEM jobs.
Primary and secondary education is uniformly accessible to males and females in most countries. Hence, the probability of developing an interest in such fields is roughly equal for students in school. Yet fewer females than males pursue higher studies and careers in STEM fields.
A report by the World Bank found that globally, tertiary enrollment and graduation rates are higher among women than men. For every 100 men, there are 114 women enrolled in universities globally.
Yet, women are less likely to undertake studies in STEM fields, particularly engineering, ICT, and physics. Those who do are less likely to enter STEM careers and exit them earlier than their male peers.
Many believe that men and women are differently wired, which affects the vocations chosen by the sexes. However, there are contesting studies about differences in men’s and women’s cognitive abilities: some find evidence that males outscore females in areas of spatial skills, specifically on measures of mental rotation. (Linn & Petersen, 1985; Voyer et al., 1995)
Spatial skills have been deemed essential for success in STEM fields, even though there is no proven connection between the two (Ceci et al., 2009). However, comprehensive evidence suggests spatial skills can be improved fairly easily with training. So, the argument that women lag behind men in certain areas is rendered moot.
Interest in an occupation is influenced by many factors, including a belief that one can succeed in that occupation. According to sociologist Shelley Correll, girls assess their mathematical ability to be lower than boys, even with equivalent past mathematical achievements. On top of that, girls also hold themselves to a higher standard in subjects like math, where boys are considered to excel. Because of this, girls are less likely to believe they will succeed in a STEM field, which also factors into less participation in STEM fields as employees.
Thus, it makes sense when data tells us that women account for 26% of workers in data and artificial intelligence, 15% of workers in engineering, and 12% of workers in cloud computing.
For women who opt for STEM fields and active employees in the area, gendered problems only increase their probability of dropping out of the field. Some of these include:
Cultural expectations from Indian women vary due to the intersection of caste, class, race, and pre-determined gender roles. But female labor force participation and the reason behind such a dramatic lag remain more or less the same.
World Bank data reveals that in terms of percentages, there are more Indian female graduates (43%) in STEM at the tertiary level than in developed nations like the UK (38%), US (34%), German (27%), and France (32%).
A survey conducted by an ed-tech platform revealed that 57% girl students are interested in pursuing STEM due to increased awareness of the subject and access to online learning.
The rise of online learning platforms has led to increased participation by women. Sambodhi’s capacity-building courses on MEL, Tableau, and other software have witnessed increased participation from women over time.
Such a positive trend results from an increased focus on improving the gender profile in STEM fields to promote gender equity across areas. Following are some of the schemes implemented by the government which focus on creating gender equity in STEM education:
However, women in the industry claim that in Indian STEM, the number of women graduates has never been a matter of concern. What is concerning is the proportion of those who ultimately land STEM jobs. Data from United Nations reveals that women constitute merely 14% of the total scientists, engineers, and technologists in research development institutions in India. And this is despite their women-centric initiatives.
Extensive studies have been carried out to find how such an issue can be overcome to create opportunities for women in STEM. At the heart of all solutions is the necessity to combat internalized prejudice about one’s capacity, irrespective of identity.
If Dr. K Sumathy and her contribution to developing India’s first indigenous vaccine, Covaxin, is any evidence, we see just how much skill and raw talent the world is losing when we choose not to assertively invest in empowering women in STEM fields. Millions like Dr. Sumathy can change the world for the better if given the space to spread their wings and work towards addressing the growing challenges we face as a global community.
Aishwarya Bhatia, Sambodhi