More than a century ago in 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in sciences. Since then, only 17 women have won a Nobel Prize in sciences as compared to 572 men. The fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) have seen immense growth over the past few decades, however, it is important to highlight the gender disparity that exists in STEM as a result of complex and multi-layered gender relations in wider society which has resulted in this vast gender divide in STEM education and employment. While the STEM related jobs are expected to grow, wherein 60-65 million jobs are likely to be created in the digital core sectors by 2025, women continue to be underrepresented. The proportion of women in STEM careers in India is quite low at 14% and requires further improvement.
Over the last few years, India has made tremendous strides in achieving near-universal coverage of primary education and improving the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in secondary and higher education. The proportion of women in higher education has also improved (female enrolment = 49% of total higher education enrolment; All India Survey of Higher Education 2019-20). However, this improvement in female enrolment has not translated equally across different streams of education.
In STEM subjects, male students vastly outnumber female students. The All-India Survey on Higher Education (2019-2020) states that women are only a third as likely as men to study computer science, and two-thirds as likely as men to study business or management. The report also notes that the B.Tech stream has nearly 22 lakh enrolled students out of which 71% are male students. The share of women in STEM-related jobs, in India, is a tragic 14% only.
This gender inequality in STEM starts right at the school level and these gaps persist and multiply during higher education and further career. There are a multitude of factors that have resulted in this gender gap and there is a need for an ecosystem approach to bring systemic and sustainable change in this regard.
Firstly, it is important to note that girls’ education is shaped by patriarchal norms, societal barriers, and a lack of resources, leading to boys’ education being preferred over theirs particularly when it comes to STEM subjects. These cultural norms also tend to influence the educational choices of students, and as a result, many girls tend to get more inclined towards non-STEM subjects. Therefore, it is crucial to stimulate the interest of girl students in STEM through different activities like science camps, ideation, and coding competitions, and career counseling to expose them to the fascinating world of science and technology.
Secondly, many girls do not consider a STEM degree because they lack a role model to emulate professionally, as very few get the opportunity to interact with women with careers in STEM. Conducting interaction sessions for girl students with female scientists and engineers at the school level can be a catalytic step in breaking this aspiration barrier for girls to think about making a career in STEM. Students should be encouraged to discuss Kalpana Chawla and Shakuntala Devi in the classroom as much as discussing C.V. Raman and Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Lastly, teachers are the most crucial stakeholders when it comes to the promotion of STEM education as they are the first point of contact for the girl students. However, most teachers lack the adequate skills required for conducting activity-based and experiential learning in the classroom which can motivate students. Hence, it is necessary to focus on the capacity building of teachers through teacher training programs on various aspects of STEM.
The American India Foundation’s (AIF) Digital Equalizer Program in collaboration with government and industry partners is committed to and working towards the above initiatives to bridge this gender divide in education through specific girls-focused initiative STEM for Girls program. Under the STEM for Girls initiative , IBM – AIF supports the implementation of the Vigyan Jyoti program in partnership with Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti. Vigyan Jyoti is an initiative undertaken by the Department of Science and Technology, in collaboration with Navodaya Vidalaya Samiti that aims at increasing the representation of girls in various STEM related fields across the country. Vigyan Jyoti was introduced in the year 2019-20 for the meritorious girls of class IX to XII in 50 JNVs and has now expanded to 200 JNVs with the objective of reaching out to 20,000 students across 8 regions in the country.
The Vigyan Jyoti program, through its various program activities, aims at encouraging the girls to pursue STEM related pathways as career options by developing a STEM focused mindset. Under these programs, AIF has been conducting science camps to enable experiential learning, coding workshops, role model interactions to generate awareness regarding STEM related career pathways, sessions on design thinking and computational thinking to spark the interest of girl students in STEM. Further, tinkering workshops are being organized for the capacity building of teachers and for supporting the Atal Innovation Mission of the Government of India. The focus of these activities is to develop necessary 21st century STEM focused skills for the girl students with the objective of bridging gender parity in STEM.
A student from JNV Jhansi, one of the intervention schools of AIF, says:
“Undoubtedly there is fear around science as a subject, the fear is nothing but it is a fear of not knowing. This program of Vigyan Jyoti makes you think, there are concepts you can understand yourself with experiment, it gives you a way out that, there are things unknown and you can understand it with logic and experiments on your own and hence somewhere it reduces the fear too”.
It is the need of the hour for India to promote gender equality in STEM education to create new avenues of opportunities for girls. Both education and gender equality are integral parts of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In the last few years, various laudable steps have been taken by governments and civil society to bring a perceptible change in the number of girls pursuing STEM education but there are several impediments viz inadequacy of suitable role models, discriminatory societal norms, and traditional role segregations which has not facilitated a proportional increase in the number of women pursuing STEM careers. A collaborative and integrated approach involving the government, civil society, and the industry can help bridge this gap and bring in the much-desired change.