Despite Education Gains, STEM Women in India Still Face Unequal Field
“In India, we don’t doubt that women can study science. What we doubt is whether they can have a career in science because of family commitments.”
The sight of Katie Bouman, with her hands over her mouth, eyes giddy at the image of the Black Hole in front of her, will go down as perhaps the most iconic photo of the year. It was also one of the ugliest recent instances of trolling of women in STEM and proof of the sexism women still face in science and technology fields worldwide.
In India, women working in STEM industries talk about similar sexism and prejudices. Although women’s enrollment in STEM studies is up, and organizations are enacting initiatives to encourage women in tech roles, mindsets haven’t changed enough yet to make STEM an equal playing field.
When it comes to STEM education for women, India scores well in theory. There seems to be less family discouragement for Indian women when it comes to STEM studies, than there is for women elsewhere; in a study by Open University, UK, in partnership with NASSCOM, 85% of women from India said there was no family bias against pursuing a STEM career, unlike in the UK, where gender stereotypes associated with STEM were reportedly more common among parents.
Yet this openness doesn’t translate into hard numbers. Timothy A. Gonsalves, director of IIT Mandi, and head of the Joint Admission Board (JAB), a committee tasked with increasing the enrollment of women in IITs, believes enough women are qualifying in JEE (Advanced) to achieve a 45% gender ratio in IIT B. Tech, but few actually enrol. The reasons seem socially and culturally driven.
“In 2016, 848 women were admitted to B. Tech in all IITs. In the range of JEE (Advanced) marks of these candidates, there were about 1,400 women who did not join an IIT, mostly due to restricted geographical mobility imposed by their families or preference for specific branches,” he said in an email interview. “The committee decided to take steps like adding [extra] seats, target bright schoolgirls from 8th Grade onwards, counsel them and families to motivate them towards IIT B. Tech and help them prepare for admission.”
The steps seem to be working, but it’s a slow process. In 2018, IIT Mandi surpassed the 14% female enrolment target across IITs and achieved the highest female enrolment among them – 19%. Mala Gupta, an author of books on Java, says she has seen concern for a girl’s safety in a new place inhibit the number of women in engineering institutes across the country.
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But Nisha Poyarekar, a tech entrepreneur who runs Reserved.Bit, a collaborative tech space in Pune that holds STEM workshops for children, has another take. Poyarekar says even with family support, the messages girls get in popular media and across society are difficult to shake. She rues that girls don’t seem to tap into their love for tinkering with things. Efforts to encourage girls’ tinkering often end up reinforcing traditional gendered messages by accident; even Lego, the famously gender-neutral building block giant, now creates exclusive sets for girls, with pink and pastel bricks. There are no sets marked out for boys, of course – the message being that tinkering with toys is inherently masculine.
The result is a gap in professional female STEM talent that Ambica Rajagopal, the head of data science/data management for Sterlite Technologies, finds baffling, given families’ ostensible support. Rajagopal says she has a difficult time recruiting women candidates, even from statistics institutes with more equal gender representation. “In the last seven years, I have hired one woman in core data science for team sizes that have been between 13 to 25,” she says.
Increasing women’s participation in STEM education might boost the number of female STEM professionals, but it doesn’t make the field welcoming. Sexism and unequal representation is common once women are hired; according to a Kelly Global Workforce Insights survey on Women in STEM; 81% of women in India perceive gender bias in performance evaluations.
At her first job, Sushma Singh, now a senior technology leader at Credit Suisse India, was asked by a male peer whether she had coded a project entirely on her own.
“I was a hardcore programmer and good at what I did, but in tech fields, the perception is so strong that the biases come in whether you are meeting investors or coding. The assumption is that it is the man and not the woman who has done it.”
Poyarekar, a former SAP consultant, says it’s difficult to break through the male clique and subtle mistrust that women in a technical field face, especially at entry level. “When it comes to programming or something very technical, the first impression is a woman can’t do it.” Early in her career as a senior software engineer, Poyarekar recalls working on a project with a male colleague. “There were a lot of features which I added to the project we were working on, but when the chance came [for more opportunities], the man got the preference,” she says.
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Singh has similar stories. “Given the low number of hardcore women software engineers, there is an unconscious bias amongst the men,” she says. “As a result, I learned to work twice as hard as the men to prove myself. And this is across the board — I have worked across various companies, across geographies and even run my start-up.”
“You carry your brand and people have to trust you in a deeply technical field. Coming across as both powerful and likeable is difficult and is a particular challenge for women,” says Rajagopal. “Mansplaining is a behavior pattern that is persistent and takes away credit from women. This is almost unconscious, sometimes, and pointing it out helps.”
Singh agrees. “It’s important to call out bad behavior and make the men in your circle notice the pattern, which they often don’t,” she says. “Once they do, they would become champions of women themselves.”
This bias, the women interviewed say, is often rooted in one social role that keeps women from being seen as equal STEM professionals: the role of mother/homemaker.
Padma Shri awardee, Professor Rohini Godbole, PhD, who works at the Centre for High Energy Physics, IISC, Bangalore and is part of the advisory group for the International Linear Collider at CERN, recalls her male PhD adviser’s suggestion, in 1979, to go back to India, despite other international offers after her doctorate at S.U.N.Y, Stony Brook, U.S. Her advisor’s assumption was that as a woman, Godbole would wish to go back home and start a family there, instead of being overseas and focusing on her career. “I came back and joined Tata Institute Of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai and my career took off. However,” Godbole says, “if I look back, and if I were in my PhD advisor’s position, I would have discussed the options with my student, instead of the suggestion that I go back to India. In hindsight, this shows the difference in the way you would treat a boy student and girl student.”
Women interviewed say social expectations that women get married, start a family, and be the primary caregiver of children, lead to fewer women role models in senior positions across tech and science institutions. Many drop off after five or six working years, unable to balance both work and family expectations.
“In India, we don’t doubt that women can study science, excel in it and do a PhD. What we doubt is whether they can have a career in science because of family commitments.”
“In India, we don’t doubt that women can study science, excel in it and do a PhD. What we doubt is whether they can have a career in science because of family commitments. I, too, faced this attitude from the scientific community around me,” says Godbole, adding that while about 25% of PhD candidates in STEM fields in India are women, only 10% of faculty are female.
To stop this fallout, in 2003, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) launched the Women Scientists Scheme aimed at providing opportunities to women scientists who had taken a career break. “Schemes to re-enter would work better if they were made gender neutral,” says Godbole. “Making them only for women is assuming that parenting is only a woman’s responsibility. The respect for scientists working in these schemes will increase if the schemes apply to both.”
Access to creches, and flexible, trust-focused work policies would aid STEM parents of either gender, say women interviewed. Still, “women do face different issues than men,” says Gupta, who is also the Delhi lead for the global non-profit, Women Who Code, an organization that helps women succeed in tech careers. “Organizations need to acknowledge these and form more policies and programs to include and empower women in tech fields.”
Creches and feeding rooms would go a long way toward specifically supporting a woman’s “choice of maternal activity, along with work deliverables,” Rajagopal suggests.
A paradigm shift in the way women are viewed in STEM will reflect shifting the gears of our social conditioning. But changing gendered norms is a long and arduous process. In the meantime, initiatives like women-centric hacking challenges and tech talks can help people see women’s tech skills. Conferences like the Grace Hopper Celebration, Asia’s largest gathering of women technologists, and Women in Data Science (WiDS), put the spotlight on women’s STEM achievements and ability. Rajagopal feels these are an essential part of the solution to remove biases towards women in these industries.
VMInclusion Taara, a partnership between software company VMWare and global non-profit Women Who Code, launched in December 2018, aims to upskill 15,000 women in India over the next two years by providing free technical training on advanced digital solutions. The initiative is aimed at helping women who have left the industry return to work. Gupta points out that such things help to create a path of re-entry for women in the workforce. “Women often drop out after five to six years in the workforce because of commitment to families, inability to move cities, etc. Tech is changing at such a fast pace that one needs to stay upskilled continuously to not become obsolete,” she says.
The other step, say women interviewed, is simply to hire more women and make it a part of policy – no excuses.
“Once [STEM] companies decide to hire more women and start tracking by numbers, departments have no choice but to step up,” says Singh. “Measures like having a woman panelist in every interview panel, a rise in the percentage of women at senior levels and tech forums, do have an impact.”
Reshmi Chakraborty is a freelance writer based in Pune. She likes to write on gender, social trends, development and people and is always torn between reading a book or watching yet another series on Netflix.