In what could be a policy change of the decade in the higher education space in India, the University Grant Commission (UGC) recently approved draft guidelines under which professionals like civil servants, engineers, lawyers, artists, and media persons with 15 years of experience might be able to teach at universities and colleges without a Ph.D. or clearing the NET. This opens up new avenues of collaborative research, training, and knowledge creation but there’s one specific area where this could have game-changing potential- female representation in STEM.
According to the 2019–20 All India Survey on Higher Education, more women than men are graduating in a growing number of scientific disciplines. Then why is it that underrepresentation of women in STEM is still an issue of prime importance and one that needs consistent academic and policy engagement? The answer is multifaceted but a major issue being probed here is that while a significantly higher number of women have acquired scientific degrees compared to men, women remain a minority among people employed in science in India.
The Ministry of Education in India reports that there were 113 females per 100 male students in the Bachelor of Science programme while the Master of Science programme had an even higher count of 180 students per 100 male students. This overwhelming statistic lights up the path of female representation in STEM fields with new hope and possibilities but this feat doesn’t lend to a similar representation of women in the industrial space. To look at the wider global picture, a 2018 Glassdoor report reveals that some of the highest-paying jobs in America are those in the STEM industry and further indicates that even in these high-paying STEM occupations women earn less than their male counterparts. The underrepresentation is hence neither an Indian phenomenon nor does it end there, ‘horizontal gender segregation’ is being observed in India whereby gender divisions are reinforced within sub-fields and specialisations even in academia (Tambe, 2019). Certain fields like the life sciences (56 percent) and microbiology (67 per cent), boast high enrolment of women while some other fields including physics (38 percent) and engineering (32 percent) show a stifling growth of female presence (Ministry of Education, 2020a).
The error most studies make is looking at this phenomenon as a loss of human capital problem when it is an issue of intergenerational discrimination, disenfranchisement, and protective paternalism. The representation of women in STEM fields in the workforce is important not just for propelling the economy or for a better chance at finding a life-saving drug, but because it is their right to have an equal and equitable opportunity in pursuing careers they deserve and aspire to achieve. As the UNESCO 2022 publication “The braided river: the universe of Indian women in science” points out, this is especially important in the Indian context because career choices in India are often family-driven, where the values of the parents dominate like the daughter’s purported “safety” or how certain careers might affect her “marriageability”.
This abstruse conundrum of a huge gender gap in the STEM workforce, along with an increasing and promising number of women graduating in different STEM disciplines, calls for an engagement between both – the industry and academia to make a more inclusive and equitable space possible. Roping in “professors of practice” could be a positive step in this direction.
Shaping tomorrow’s leaders: Mentorship
One of the greatest challenges identified as a reason behind girls not aspiring to be industry leaders in male-dominated fields is the lack of role models and mentors. Seeing someone from the same background, looking just like them, and standing in a position of power goes way ahead in breaking decades of sexism.
Female industry professionals becoming “professors of practice” in HEIs can do exactly this. They can share their experiences of not just success and grit but the challenges of navigating in a space that is presently dominated by men. Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist who is the president of Barnard College, writes for Harvard Business Review that after spending years observing what causes self-doubt in women in male-dominated fields, the chief is gender bias that comes in both explicit and subtler forms. She explains talented women succumb to stereotype-driven expectations which begin early when young girls stop believing that they are the smart ones, while boys continue to believe their gender is gifted.
But bringing in highly skilled and successful female professors of practice can break this male-shaped mold of success in STEM.
More than lectures: Industry-academia collaborations
The draft says the policy change won’t be circumscribed to orthodox academic lectures, they will also focus on enhanced industry-academia collaborations, conduct workshops, and seminars jointly in collaboration with regular faculty, deliver special lectures and training programmes, and carry out joint research projects or consultancy services in collaboration with the regular faculty members of the concerned HEI.
A few months back there was a barrage of LinkedIn posts by Engineering majors across India about getting selected for a certain coding conference, what would pique one’s interest here is that they were all young girls and women. The conference in context is the Harvard WECode (Women Engineers Code) which is a global community of technical leaders aiming to promote more female representation in the technology industry. It is touted to be the world’s largest student-run women in tech conference which connects young female coders to multiple tech firms including giants like Facebook, Google, and Bloomberg. This is disruptive in the sense that women in higher education are directly engaging with industrial leaders and seeing real-life role models that inspire them.
Collaborations with the industry in the forms of workshops, competitions, seminars, and even internships/training can boost the early engagement female STEM students have with the industry which could potentially lead to an expansion of opportunities. Another facet is that it is not women’s lack of confidence that is circumscribing representation rather roadblocks in the industry which are designed to make women falter.
It is high time to acknowledge that traditional corporate frameworks are biased towards specific qualities and skills that promote men. In a laboratory experiment conducted by Michigan State University, women who described themselves using masculine-like traits (assertive, independent, achievement-oriented) were evaluated as more fitting for the job than those who emphasized female-like traits (warmth, supportive, nurturing). This could hence, be an opportunity for those in the STEM workforce to engage with the talent of tomorrow and design a workplace and culture that is more inclusive and not “default” male.
Socio-cultural and caste perspectives
The real picture might not be as glossy as it sounds because the reasons behind few women joining the STEM workforce as compared to women enrolled in academic courses are not just rooted in the overtly masculine work culture or lack of female role models and mentors. A major chunk of the issue lies in the socio-cultural and historical makeup of our societies.
The Harvard implicit association test, which uses reaction times to assess subtle associations between groups of words, reveals that both adult women and men have a strong association of the word “male” with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics, while “female” is associated with words related to humanities and family (Nosek et al., 2009). The study adds that about 70% of more than half a million Implicit Association Tests completed by citizens of 34 countries revealed expected implicit stereotypes associating science with males more than with females.
An equally disturbing observation is the implicit association of women with terms such as family and caretaking in comparison to men with careers. Women being career-oriented and ambitious is looked down upon in varying intensities in India, the more patriarchal the community less the chances of women having a career. This must be read along with factors such as strong constraints on female mobility in India forcing women to take up career options that are considered more “apt” for the family and not herself and her dreams. General aversion and bias against women embracing career-oriented lifestyles deepen when it comes to STEM fields as it is further considered as “men’s dominion”.
The limits to invisible female oppression don’t end there in India because of the strong role caste oppression plays. Indian scientific space is still in denial of the social exclusion minority castes face in India in Higher educational institutions, in both its visible and visible forms. Dr.Alice Evans, professor at King’s College London, writes that in Indian cities, particularly smaller ones, people tend to live close to their caste and rely on their caste networks. As long as people rely on these networks for economic support in times of crisis, they need to conform to traditional ideas of propriety, and that includes female seclusion.
Moving towards a gender-transformative path
Although the Indian academic space is in dire need of industry engagement, there could be some serious bottlenecks like Industry professionals with great experience could be adept in their field but might lack basic sensitivities of student-teacher interactions, and who constitutes an “expert” is a serious question as there aren’t any clear guidelines on the selection process apart from the 15 years of expertise clause. The selection procedure could again buttress the biases being discussed and have a majorly male array of professors.
For this massive policy change to be a successful endeavor, it has to not only be gender sensitive but gender transformative in the gender mainstreaming scale, attempting to redefine women’s and men’s gender roles and relations. Along with incorporating every facet being discussed, an active effort has to be made to engage both stakeholders – the academia and industry- and not limit the collaborative efforts to mere lectures. Such a transformative collaboration is also a great site for further Science policy engagement and research to better understand why women stop taking lucrative career options despite having high-skill degrees.
Acknowledgment: This article is an outcome of my internship at the Natural Science Sector, UNESCO New Delhi. I am thankful to my supervisors, Dr. Benno Boer and Dr. Nimita Pandey for their support and guidance in developing this article.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.