Basant Panchami, the arrival of spring, is also marked by Saraswati Puja. Many communities venerate the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati, on this day. She is the Goddess all students turn to for blessings. Are many young girls, who aspire to study maths, science and engineering, also turning to Goddess Saraswati to help them achieve their dreams?
Enrolment of girls in engineering and science courses at university level is rather low, despite some recent attempts towards affirmative action by central and state governments. Girls studying science mostly prefer biology, not physics or mathematics.
A recent survey done by Martha Farrell Foundation found nearly 2500 students are learning various trades in the 5 Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) of Sonipat district of Haryana. Less than 20% of these students are girls. Most are enrolled in ‘non-technical’ streams – secretarial and beautician courses are the most popular it appears. Girls are rarely enrolled in technical streams to become electricians, machinists and the like. Even faculty of such ITIs is predominantly male.
This pattern is not unique to India. A recent global study by UNESCO showed similar trends worldwide, with enrolment of girls in Information & Computational Technology (ICT) less than 3%. Very few professors of physics and mathematics are women in universities globally, a situation that has not changed much in the past 50 years.
Such educational patterns tend to generate stereotypical falsehoods that women are not adequately ‘cognitively equipped’ to undertake complex calculus of physics and mathematics. Boys and men are thus assumed to be smarter in pursuing such vocations.
Why is this so?
The main reason for such skewed patterns of study of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM), and disproportionately low enrolment of girls in such courses, is their enrolment and performance in secondary and high school levels. Girls are ‘counselled away’ from such disciplines, and encouraged to study social sciences, arts, commerce and humanities. Even where formal counselling is provided to middle school students, girls are not encouraged to study STEM subjects.
Such inherent biases and mis-conceptions are prevalent amongst teachers, counsellors, parents, and even amongst girl students themselves. As a result, girls do not find science exciting and stimulating. And their interest in doing well in STEM subjects in school is weakened.
This year’s Annual ASER Report of educational attainment in India shows the above trend. While girls score much higher than boys in overall academic results in middle and high school levels, they perform poorly in mathematics. Maths scores of girls at grades 5 & 8 were systematically lower than those for boys.
Therefore, a starting point for bringing greater gender equality amongst professionals in STEM disciplines is to start making such subjects exciting for girls in school itself. Innovative experiments in this regard are happening around the world, and the science communication push in European Union is making great progress.
In all these successful experiments, attitudes of teachers towards girls studying, in general, and studying STEM, in particular, are the most important influencers. If teachers believe that place of women is at home, then girls better study courses like nutrition, beautician and tailoring. Gender sensitisation of teachers and counsellors can support the process of gender sensitisation of parents, thereby encouraging girls to study STEM.
It is precisely with this intention the United Nations has declared International Day of Women & Girls in Science on 11th February.
You may wonder what is all this fuss about? How does it matter if girls study or do not study STEM subjects, and men alone continue to occupy STEM professions?
It matters greatly, because advancement of new knowledge and technological innovation for the future of our planet are intricately linked to STEM. Knowledge society of the future should be co-governed by women and men, if sustainability of this planet is to be secured.