As India commemorate International Women’s Day, the role of females in STEM streams require a relook to facilitate greater participation.
“Science is not a boy’s game, nor a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game.” Nichelle Nichols, former NASA ambassador, and Star Trek actress.
In the era of constant innovations and digital disruptions, proficiency in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is universally deemed crucial in driving national economies. Likewise, the criticality of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives is recognised by most organizations as these three closely-connected values help ensure more significant growth by promoting more productive business outcomes.
Inconsistent Progress in STEM
Despite the focus on DEI programs and the vast gains females have secured in educational and professional spheres over the past five decades, their progress has been inconsistent. As a result, specific scientific and engineering domains are still overwhelmingly male preserves.
But experts in psychology have consistently asserted that no substantial difference exists between males and females when it comes to the aptitude for STEM subjects. Yet, the participation of females in STEM remains relatively low, though the needle has been moving in recent years.
Nonetheless, as India stands poised to emerge as a global power, competing and excelling in every segment will require equal participation by men and women. Else, half of the nation’s talent pool will be untapped, giving a significant advantage to geographies where women play an equally prominent role in diverse domains.
Notwithstanding the comparatively small proportion of females graduating in select STEM spheres, the overall percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to them in STEM has risen steeply in the past four decades. Of course, it’s also clear that women’s representation in diverse fields varies. Still, these developments indicate a brighter scenario for females in STEM as they steadily break the glass ceiling in India by excelling in various STEM streams.
Commendable Institutional Initiatives
Here, one must laud the Central Government’s numerous initiatives to incentivize girls to join STEM courses. These include fellowships and scholarships at the undergraduate to doctoral level. Among these initiatives, two will provide some idea about the incentives the Centre offers girls to join STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine, and Mathematics) courses.
The first is GATI (Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions). Aimed at allowing equal participation of females in STEMM streams across levels, there are 25 participating institutions representing a broad spectrum of verticals. The second is INSPIRE-SHE (Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research – Scholarship for Higher Education). INSPIRE-SHE encourages young girls between 17 and 22 to join higher studies in science-intensive programs by offering mentorship and scholarships. Every year, this scheme provides 10,000 scholarships.
Opportunities and Challenges
As automation, AI, robotics, and other new-age elements gain growing popularity in Indian industry at large, research entity IDC notes that India’s artificial intelligence market is slated to touch $7.8 billion by 2025, rising from $2.8 billion, increasing at a CAGR of 18.1 per cent between 2020 and end-2025. This growth is anticipated across all segments – services, software, and hardware.
Against this backdrop, India has risen as the globe’s primary sourcing destination since the nation has one of the biggest qualified talent pools of technical graduates worldwide. The rise in demand for this talent is credited to various favourable factors. These include a youthful populace more suitable for upskilling, demand for people with digital skills, increasing data-driven needs of organizations, and support through institutional programs, especially regarding skill development.
Additionally, females are encouraged to join STEM due to the emergence of an enabling environment at most companies. This is in the form of policies permitting flexible work hours, the work-from-home option in some instances, the provision of daycare facilities, and the relaxation of age limits for women.
However, some challenges, such as cognitive abilities, still hinder female participation in STEM. Regarding the difference in cognitive skills among genders, boys and men are said to outperform girls and women consistently. But one cannot overlook the fact that research shows spatial skills of individuals can improve dramatically within a short period through simple training courses.
Mantras for Augmenting Skills
In short, if girls are provided with an ambience to augment their success in maths and science through spatial skills training, they will be more inclined to boost those skills along with their confidence. A future in STEM spheres then seems a more promising possibility. Although the base for a STEM career is built in the formative years, don’t forget that engineers and scientists emerge from the precincts of colleges and universities.
Accordingly, one needs to acknowledge meta-skills role in acting as a success mantra for skilling and upskilling. Meta-skills refer to cognitive skills that activate a person’s ability to learn new skills. Though meta-skills are an intrinsic ability, they can be nurtured and honed over time by creating an internal environment conducive to creativity and innovation.
Another key element for pursuing STEM careers is providing women with apt role models. Going by data, role models can dramatically influence young women’s choice of careers. Indeed, the percentage of females interested in STEM nearly doubles with an inspirational role model. Significantly, a Handshake Network Trends survey indicates 65 per cent of Gen Z females seek women in leadership roles in any organization before applying for a job. Women are keen to know their career paths before joining any company.
Keeping these variables in mind, companies must implement concerted L&D initiatives emphasizing continuous upskilling for women to stay ahead of the learning disruption curve. Therefore, new-age entities such as Axtria support DEI and L&D initiatives via periodic programs. In driving more productive outcomes in academics and enterprises, one should promote a robust gender balance. If corporates wish to have better bottom lines and operational outcomes, it is essential to improve the gender balance at the workplace rather than hiring talent based on one gender.
Finally, in expanding STEM talent, institutions should closely examine the biases and stereotypes prevalent today. Encouraging more females to opt for STEM fields requires a careful focus on the environment – not just in the classrooms and workplaces but throughout society. Such an approach is indispensable because, despite the slowdown in some industries, STEM talent will witness ever-rising demand in the coming years.