The prestige associated with studying the sciences in Indian society has become a recurring theme in the criticism of the Indian education system. While the humanities have consistently produced well-known bureaucrats and policymakers, the sciences hold a special place in the Indian household. This has its own pros and cons, which can be extensively debated, but one of the more encouraging signs is the enrollment of more girls into scientific programs at the university level.
While the quality of scientific education in Indian universities, in terms of infrastructure and research capabilities, has a long way to go before it reaches the standards provided in developed countries the fact that female students occupy a much larger percentage in securing admissions into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) undergraduate courses in India, is a much-appreciated statistic. However, the silver lining ends there as the number of female students going on to have successful careers in the hard sciences is a very sorry figure.
Data from All-India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) Report 2018-19 shows that women account for over 43% of the total enrollments for STEM undergraduate courses in the country. But this number decreases for higher qualifications, with a mere 3% enrolling for Ph.D. in the sciences. Additionally, women occupy a measly 14% of the workforce in scientific research institutions across the country. The under-representation of women in the scientific community has put them at the risk of loss of jobs with the advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation in the industry. Data from the US shows that just 1 in 20 women are made deans and department heads of scientific departments in academia which would suggest that the number in India is comparable or worse off. This would further discourage future generations of women from taking up the sciences as their primary subject of study.
How do we ensure that the female students coming out of college as STEM graduates choose the same as their career choice? A need for effective policies to encourage girls to actively pursue careers in the sciences is of primary importance.
Indian women have a high rate of mid-career dropouts due to societal obligations such as marriage and pregnancy. India is still a conservative society and it is necessary for Indian universities to instill the importance of financial independence in all students, especially girls. Encouraging girls to pursue their academic dreams by providing incentives in the form of scholarships and career growth opportunities is a good first step in that direction. The government actively promoting technical skill development programs for young girls can help bring them into the scientific community. The private sector has already taken the lead in establishing a minimum fixed gender ratio during the recruitment of engineers and scientists. These policies would help young graduates kick-start their careers and ensure they remain in the workforce. In terms of career growth, private companies such as IBM, PepsiCo, and General Motors have elevated women to significant leadership positions along with providing necessary professional development opportunities for women, thus giving them more reasons to stay in the workforce. Private companies are now helping women establish their credentials by providing them opportunities to speak at panels and sit on different boards, which ensures their longevity in the field.
The policies currently in place, such as the 10+2+4 educational model, target girls at the university level to encourage them towards the sciences but unfortunately, it is too late. An educational framework must be designed to target girls in middle and high school setting them on a path to pursue a career in the sciences. The proposed NEP design of 5+3+3+4 will help to optimize learnings based on students’ interests and abilities helping identify girls interested in the sciences at a younger age. The process of piquing young minds’ interests at a young age can help them make better career choices and will result in more female researchers in institutes.
Lastly, it is imperative to ensure gender parity and equal opportunities for women to continue their careers in the scientific field. Beginning from university recruitment to providing tenure for senior professors, the scientific community in India should wholeheartedly accept women who are technically fit for the role offered. The universities can be incentivized with increased funding by the government for ensuring that no gender pay gap exists between professors and ensuring gender balance in recruitment and intake. It should be the job of the research institutes and universities in the country to provide a better platform for women to advance their careers in the sciences.
With exponential scientific advancements in the 21st century, the field of STEM is the future. While India has laid the foundation for ensuring the large participation of women in the field of STEM, there is a lot of work to be done to keep the talented ones in the field. This must not only be the responsibility of the government, but also of academic institutions, and society as a whole.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.