Low enrolment rates in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) courses is a global phenomenon. Post-secondary enrolment ratios for female students in STEM are still less than 15% in the US, as per a study by Association of American Women in Universities. Almost one-third of all male freshmen (29%), compared with only 15% of all female freshmen, planned to major in a STEM field in 2006.1 In the US, the rates of science and engineering course taking for girls/women shift at the undergraduate level and gender disparities begin to emerge, especially for minority women. 2 In the European Union, less than half (42.4%) of tertiary education graduates in science, mathematics, and computing were women in 2014.3
The European Parliament has been seized of this concern since 1999, and has mandated new policies to promote enhanced female participation in STEM, and regular monitoring and reporting on the same. EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative focuses on Responsible Research & Innovation (RRI) and gender matters are a key aspect of this. Women’s participation in science, technology and innovation in Brazil is the highest due to its progressive social policies that include state-funded tuition. President Trump, within his first 100 days in office, signed two new laws which mandate NASA and the National Science Foundation to push for women and girls to get into science, math and related fields.
Recent media reports in India about concerns regarding low admission rates of girls in Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) seem to suggest that the phenomenon has suddenly caught the attention of educationists and policy-makers. Recommended solutions to create additional seats (called supernumerary) and separate hostels to reach the target of 20% female students by 20194 however seem to miss the deep-rooted systemic biases in the profession of engineering and sciences, not merely in educational institutions. In stark contrast to the state of STEM enrolment of women in prestigious IITs, other less “prestigious” institutes of engineering and technology show robust female student enrolment. For example, Rajiv Gandhi University for Knowledge Technologies (RGUKT) at Basar, Telengana has enroled annually, since 2008, nearly 53% female students in all branches of engineering. Likewise, in KL University in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh female students account for more than half of every batch of engineering students for the past fifteen years.
What explains this contrast?
Two clear reasons.
First, admission to IITs in the past two decades is determined by attendance in coaching colleges (for periods of 2 to 4 years) before or after completing 12th grade schooling. Mostly boys attend coaching colleges, and hence girls do not get into IITs. One may ask: why do girls not attend coaching classes for admission to IITs? Simple: Because parents do not want to invest that level of resources in the higher education of their daughters, especially in societies living north of the Deccan Plateau.
Fears about safety of girls in these coaching colleges and insecurity of mobility account for the second reason.
In sub-Deccan societies, by comparison, many institutes (including the ones mentioned above) admit students on merit, and girls score very well in high school results in STEM subjects. In addition, families feel less concerned about safety of girls and their mobility.
This is not the full picture though. Let us look at the way girls are socialised before they go to high school. Boys are generally encouraged to enrol for science and mathematics courses. Girls are ‘persuaded’ to study languages, humanities, arts and commerce. Such an early socialisation creates separation of interests and career options for boys and girls. So, when girls do not opt for science and mathematics, we consider it a natural inclination and phenomenon.
Of those female students who do excel in science and maths in high school and enter STEM institutes for further education, their experience in these institutions is not very supportive. Classes, laboratories and workshops have a culture that discourages female students from participating actively. Some recently reported cases (and many more unreported ones) of sexual harassment and abuse faced by female students in universities and colleges indicates another systemic barrier to their education. A survey conducted in Mumbai colleges revealed a shocking 61.7% women reporting that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in or coming to college.5
Once graduated, are STEM women graduates welcomed into professional associations? Leadership of STEM professional associations, nationally and globally, does not show any attention to, or concern about, gender representation, let alone equality.
What about when they enter the workforce? Women’s experiences of careers in STEM, in India and abroad, are full of examples of systemic gender biases. Women’s careers stagnate when they get married and have to take responsibility for child-rearing. Pressures for continuous presence and harassment in experimental labs tend to discriminate against women moving ahead. Women scientists and researchers miss out on social networking and off-work connecting opportunities due to their home-maker responsibilities. Those who struggle and continue, find that gender pay gaps are significantly higher than average pay gap between men and women, particularly in IT companies in India and Silicon Valley.6
It is no wonder, therefore, that there are less than 25% working women scientists world-wide. UNESCO reports that in 2015, only 28% of STEM researchers around the globe are women, and less than 10% of top leadership of STEM teaching and research institutions are occupied by women. 7 Though nearly equal numbers of men and women pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the STEM fields, the loss of women from the research career path begins at the PhD stage and continues through the highest organisational levels—a phenomenon somewhat controversially described as a “leaky pipeline.” For every Tessy Thomas, India’s “Missile Woman” (she is the first woman engineer to head a missile project in India), there are countless others who drop out of the workforce. Over 80% of women in STEM jobs in India perceive a gender bias in performance evaluation and are more likely to quit jobs at mid-career level.8 Of the 500 recipients of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, India’s premier Science award, only 15 are women.9
Therefore, mere setting of a quota for a select band of institutions like the IITs will not address the systemic and structural gender bias affecting women’s participation in education and careers in STEM.
Cosmetic efforts will no longer STEM the rot.
Dr. Rajesh Tandon is one of the Founder Directors of MFF (Martha Farrell Foundation), the Founder President of PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia), and Co-Chair, UNESCO Chair on Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, living in Delhi, India. He completed his graduation from IIT, Kanpur and post-graduation from IIM, Kolkata, and received his PhD from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, United States. He is an internationally acclaimed leader and practitioner of participatory research and development. Dr. Tandon specialises in social and organisational change and has contributed to the enhancement of perspectives and capacities of many voluntary activists and organizations. He has served on numerous government task forces and committees, and is the founder of the Board of Directors of World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS). He has written a number of articles, books and manuals on Participatory Research and related topics.