On this International Women’s Day, we sat down with some of the women leaders to discuss the need to bring more girls into science and technology.
Global markets and workspaces are increasingly demanding new-age skills and solution-providing mindsets. In fact, a report suggests that in the next decade, 80% of the jobs will need STEM (Science, technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills.
In a future where jobs and workspaces will need technology skills at almost all levels, we need to ensure that women have a seat at the table and access to the new collar jobs of the future.
Not only does India – and the world – need the participation of its female population, the women themselves need to be ready to enter these emerging technology fields. However, despite the clear need – both from the tech job market and the women looking to enter higher-paying professions – the field is anything but equitable.
On this International Women’s Day, we sat down with some of the women pioneers and leaders of the technology sector to understand the need to bring more girls into science and technology(S&T) and how S&T education and careers can be made more inclusive and open for girls across India.
Debjani Ghosh, the first woman president of the National Association of Software & Services Companies (NASSCOM), is a key influencer in the industry and is a firm believer in using technology as an enabler of inclusive growth. She said, “The overall percentage of women in the tech sector is a healthy 36% but needs greater diversity in middle and senior management. This effort requires a commitment by women themselves to invest in their learning, taking new opportunities as well as by organizations in building mentorship initiatives, tracking metrics across levels, leadership programs and continuous learning.” Debjani is well aware that for better diversity in STEM at the workplace, it is critical that structured interventions are undertaken to shift the perceptions at the school and college levels. To get more girls into STEM, she said, “Programs that showcase girls who code, special talks on STEM role models, STEM scholarships, industry initiatives on skilling girls and women in STEM, talks on career opportunities in STEM, online self-paced learning in STEM, the government-led initiatives to drive STEM learning across government girl schools and colleges, exchange programs are among the plethora of initiatives that will need to be taken by all stakeholders.”
An insider’s perspective was provided by Gargi B Dasgupta, IBM Distinguished Engineer, who has spent close to 2 decades helming some of the most cutting-edge technical innovations at IBM India. Her personal experience has highlighted that getting more women and girls into STEM is not just good for them and their communities but is also critical to fostering greater innovation, agility, performance, and engagement for the businesses as well. She said, “STEM field needs diverse voices in innovation, implementation, and education. For instance, if you look at the field of AI – to drive AI-based innovation infused into every part of our world, we need a diverse set of people from every part of the world, contributing in different ways so that the technology created improves the current state, is ethical and removes barriers.” She spoke further about IBM’s approach to closing the gender gap in technology, “As opportunities in STEM evolves, there are efforts made to encourage girls and women to take up STEM careers and explore avenues beyond programming and coding. IBM’s STEM for Girls is helping introduce girls to not just coding but also integrate life skills, gender and digital literacy, and career development, which enables young girls to dream bigger and negotiate better futures for themselves.”
According to Neha Bagaria, Founder & CEO of JobForHer, corporates are well aware of the need to attract and retain female tech talent. She launched JobsForHer, which is now India’s largest career platform for women, on International Women’s Day in 2015. Since then, JobsForHer has connected over 2.2 million job aspirants to 7500+ companies across the country. She opines, “In the post-covid world, there is going to be a huge shift toward digitization. Algorithms are rapidly becoming responsible for more and more decisions about our lives and deployed by banks, healthcare companies, big businesses and governments; this built-in gender bias is a cause of grave concern for our current and future generations. Companies are thus taking up large initiatives to create a robust pipeline of women in tech including skilling programs, mentorship programs and networking platforms.”
While there is a fair amount of equality in access to education and even careers in the more urban centres of India, the girls of rural and Tier 3 cities lag. This is not often down to their ability rather, the barriers are more structural and societal. Amrita Gangotra, Founder & MD, ITyukt Digital Solutions, is a passionate advocate for taking STEM education outside the urban centres, and she said, “Girls, especially in rural India and Tier 3 cities, are not encouraged to take STEM subjects. Even if they are sent to schools, higher education for girls still remains a challenge. Preference is given to boys in the family when it comes to spending money to send them for higher education. In urban India, fortunately, the child is always encouraged to take up Science subjects. However, I have noticed that girls sometimes do not pursue a full career due to family situations or marital pressures. The good news is that awareness of this aspect is increasing within Gen-Z girls, but continuous mentoring and pairing them with role models will help them to pursue STEM related careers.” Amrita also spoke about some of the key interventions that could turn the tide, “Schools and NGOs in the rural and tier 3 cities must find ways to facilitate higher education in STEM for girls. STEM for Girls India is a very good initiative to focus on this issue, and they can help in creating a roadmap to move the needle.”
Clearly, equitable access to STEM related opportunities is a chokepoint for most girls outside the bigger urban cities, but career challenges for women professionals remain all across the spectrum. Dr Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, Professor and the first female Director of Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, also described her struggles to juggle professional and personal responsibilities during her career. “For me personally, it doesn’t seem possible to have the best of both worlds. To do very well in one area, one has to give up in other areas. I chose to dedicate and devote maximum time to my profession, and then the home front suffers at times. It is a commitment women have to make, but not everyone is able to or are supported to pick their professions.”
“In terms of higher education and research, I have seen that the number of women researchers haven’t increased much since my fledgeling years, which is a surprise to me! Because computer science is a space where it is easier for women to flourish. What would help is to have more research fellowships specifically for women. Especially with age relaxation for women candidates to make up for a few missed years or cover up a career break.”
Dr Ayesha Chaudhary, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) with the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, is one of the founders of the Atal Innovation Mission and has worked at the grassroots level to promote a culture of STEM innovation across the country. Her own journey was not without personal challenges; she was often the only woman in a room full of professionals and used her professional experiences in science, technology and innovation to overcome her shy nature to excel. She said, “STEM made me fearless and pragmatic. I strongly believe that if I could develop a fearless mindset and learn new skills, all girls and women can too. Therefore, you should not let gender stereotypes influence your professional choices. A scientist today is integral to every field of profession. You can choose angst several options of an academic scientist, a start-up scientist, a film-making scientist, a policy making scientist, an engineering scientist or even create your own category of a woman scientist. As a woman scientist, you must explore before you discover your category of scientist within you.”
The world today needs sustainable technology solutions. Therefore, women need to contribute equally to the creation of technology embedded in the larger good. IBM’s STEM for Girls is a nationwide initiative that brings digital literacy, 21st-century skills, coding, and life skills curriculum to students in government secondary schools across India. These are specially designed to help the girl students explore the possibilities of STEM-related careers and break gender stereotypes.
So far, the initiative has impacted over 2,00,000 girls and 1,00,000 boys of 1700+ government schools across 13 states. Today we celebrate the lakhs of girls who have embarked on a life with STEM through this initiative. However, the challenges are massive, and mindsets are entrenched; to bring substantial, systemic change, more organizations from all arenas must work together.
Link to the original article published here