Science, technology, engineering, and medicine – together known as ‘STEM’ fields – suffer from a glaring lack of women, especially in India. This should be eliciting far more worry than it is. Year after year, in school exam results, we hear of how girls have outshone boys, but when it comes to those who take up research in later life, the number of women is minuscule. This means that many of our best brains that showed the maximum potential do not pick research as a career.
Stuck in a deeply entrenched patriarchal society, Indian women face many battles before they can make it to the highest levels of STEM. As President Kovind noted at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) 76th foundation day, of all those who joined an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), only about 10% were women. Those in PhD and post doctoral research are even fewer. This situation, as the President correctly observed, is distressing. The scientific community is known to be hard on women, constantly making it hard for them to rise in the field. A Kelly Global Workforce Insights (KGWI) survey on Women in STEM showed that 81% of women in STEM fields in India perceived a gender bias in performance evaluation. Such hostile work culture, coupled with the pressures of home is making women leave STEM professions.
Earlier this year, a promising PhD scholar from IIT Delhi committed suicide, allegedly under pressure from her husband and in-laws for dowry and to give up her research dreams. Her father, in despair after her death, had told the Hindustan Times that he wished he had saved money for her dowry instead of investing in her education. This is one of the most fundamental problems. Women have to handle not just the blatantly misogynist scientific community, but also the pressures of family to conform to traditional gender roles. Many women are routinely told that they cannot be hired for high ranking positions because they either have children or will have children in the future. The underlying assumption is that a woman with a family will give more attention to her home than her job.
The loser in this scenario is not just women who do not get a chance to chase their dreams; but also science itself, which fails to benefit from other points of view. It is not enough to lament the lack of women in STEM fields. Government agencies, universities, and society must work together to ensure that our hiring practices are free from the insidious sexism that keeps women from achieving their full potential.