Rooting out gender imbalance in STEM

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October 1, 2020 12:45 AM

Science policy 2020 addresses part of the problem, need to tackle thinning pipeline for STEM jobs after PG

A 2017 NITI Aayog report shows that just 20% of the research and administrative staff in a select group of institutions, including the IITs, IISERs and NITs, are women.A 2017 NITI Aayog report shows that just 20% of the research and administrative staff in a select group of institutions, including the IITs, IISERs and NITs, are women.

The new science and technology policy that is expected in December will place significant weight on the hiring of women in STEM positions and support policy for them at institutes and research organisations, The Indian Express (IE) reports. The move is aimed at improving women’s representation in STEM employment. Despite having one of the best showings globally on women’s representation in undergraduate science education, just 13.9% of the total of 280,000 researchers holding STEM jobs in India are women, a 2019 analysis by Unesco shows. Contrast this with China, where women account for nearly 40% of the total pool of researchers.

One of the reasons is the drying pipeline towards the doctoral end of STEM higher education in the country. As AISHE 2018-19 data shows, while women equal men in strength at the undergraduate level in the sciences, they outnumber men (3:2) at the post-graduate level. In the medical sciences, too, they outnumber men at both the undergraduate and the PG level. Engineering, though, remains male-dominated. At the PhD level, however, men outnumber women in engineering, medical science and the sciences, though, in the sciences, the lead men have is not very sharp. The pipeline for women in STEM research, thus, seems to thin out after PG. A 2017 NITI Aayog report shows that just 20% of the research and administrative staff in a select group of institutions, including the IITs, IISERs and NITs, are women.

Some other factors behind the low representation of women in STEM employment, as documented across the globe through research, are unequal pay, dual responsibilities of managing home and work impacting career growth and becoming a serious disincentive, etc. Indian women in STEM have managed to hold their own in terms of published work despite their low strength in employment—a study analysing a sample of 27,000 papers published by Indian researchers in 2017, in the Journal of Informetrics, found that there was one woman author for every three male authors, across 186 streams. Compared to the US, the study found, Indian women researchers had a better showing in fields such as microbiology, dentistry and mathematics—for instance, in microbiology the US female-male ratio was 0.33 while India’s was 0.57. It is, therefore, not hard to imagine how much more Indian STEM R&D could be buoyed if more women were participating.

As a study published in BMJ that analyses over 101,000 clinical research papers and nearly 6.2 million papers in life sciences from across the globe, including India, finds women researchers tend to be more conservative about the impact of their research. In contrast, male researchers tend to be bolder and use buzzwords that attract more citations, more research grants and consequently, faster promotion. Over time, this has meant more male representation in decision-making bodies in the academia and R&D institutions—the NITI report too talks about the low representation of Indian women scientists in science administration roles. It also says a sample of 991 women working in STEM positions had reported 217 instances of having refused challenging career opportunities; in 72% of these cases, ‘family care’ or ‘family objection’ had been cited as reasons. While there is no such research amongst men in STEM positions, it is highly unlikely such reasons would figure at a comparable level.

The science policy 2020, as IE reports, focusing on facilitating on women for STEM employment through measures such as more promotion opportunities, leadership positions and support facilities such as crèches solves part of the problem. The more significant intervention has to be on correcting the pipeline distortion—the NITI report talks of increasing doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships for women in STEM, which could help them overcome financial difficulties in pursuing a career in research. Given how choice is skewed towards certain disciplines within STEM, the CSIR, DST and other such bodies could also think of grants to encourage women to pursue the less-chosen disciplines.

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