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Open Letter: Gender Inclusion in STEM

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the word “Gender” as the roles, behaviours, activities, attributes and opportunities that any society considers appropriate for girls and boys, women and men. Gender interacts with, but is different from the binary categories of biological sex. As per the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), “Gender” means “the relations between men and women, both perceptual and material. Gender is not determined biologically as a result of the sexual characteristics of either women or men but is constructed socially. It is a central organising principle of societies and often governs the processes of production and reproduction, consumption and distribution”. The emphasis on the word “and” is often forgotten which can lead to marginalisation of one gender over the other. Ironically, we have ignored the fact that gender issues are not focused on women alone, but on the equality of all genders in society.

Women are under-represented among the two genders in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). According to a study, while women have achieved parity with men in science education, they are underrepresented in related careers and higher positions. Hence guaranteeing their rights and giving them opportunities to reach their full potential is critical. This is essential not only for attaining gender justice but also for meeting a wide range of sustainable development goals. A gender imbalance exists in science, technology and innovation worldwide. However, the contribution of science and technology to development goals can be accelerated by having specific policies and programmes that particularly address the needs of the excluded groups or enhance inclusion through technological interventions.

The recent Gender gap report (WEF, 2020), placed India at 112th rank among 153 countries, based on gender-based disparities in economic, social, political, education and health-based related domains. Also, greater access to and use of existing technologies, as well as better products that respond to women’s needs, can increase their efficiency in carrying out various tasks. Participating in S&T education is important to support women’s and girls’ role as users and innovators of technologies as well as researchers, scientists and technologists. Their low participation is problematic not only from a right to justice point of view, but also from an economic angle. In an era where economic growth is often linked to a country’s capacity for innovation, women’s contributions become especially important. Studies have shown that women’s participation may help diversify research and development and fuel creativity, resulting in enhanced quality and productivity . A recent report (McKinsey, 2015) stated that gender parity in STI, can add approximately USD 12 trillion to global gross domestic product by 2025.

Given that India is at the bottom of the Gender Diversity Index in the Asia Pacific region, it needs to adopt proactive measures to improve the percentage of women participation more efficiently and effectively. Acquiring science and technology education and training can empower women in all aspects of their lives. Eliminating barriers to women’s employment in science and technology fields will further the goals of full employment and decent work.

There is no simple solution: “Getting women into science” has been insufficient; the number keeps decreasing as we move higher in education and career trajectories. We also find very less women in leadership roles. They need to be supported by a multi-dimensional approach which includes access to resources and gender empowerment, along with an inclusive education system.

Three very important questions that we need to ask ourselves is- where do we stand? Why is it important to bridge the gender gap in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI)? How can we bridge this gap?

The potential of science and technology (S&T) to advance development and contribute to people’s well-being has been well-recognised. Science and technology is vital for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals. The policy makers need to focus on determining and addressing social norms and stereotypes, targeting and restructuring the primary and secondary education, higher education, enabling career progression, revamping the policy-making processes, encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation among youth. Some of the points of introspection as well as interventions with respect to Gender inclusivity are as follow:

  • Early interventions are critical, as it is important to condition young children and evoke interest in science at an early age. Gender inequalities in education at the expense of girls are particularly profound in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, which are traditionally male- dominated domains. There is a dire need for encouraging equal treatment of boys and girls in primary education to dispel harmful stereotypes that underestimate girls’ ability and disassociate STEM from girls and women.
  • Featuring prominent women scientists as role models and building bridges with new generations of women scientists   can   inspire   and   motivate   many more to follow in their footsteps.  It is very important to demonstrate the achievements of women scientists so that young boys and girls can strive to emulate them.
  • Governments need tools to define and collect better policy-relevant indicators on all aspects of women in science and engineering, thereby addressing current and potential future barriers to their participation and career development. This can be achieved by encouraging and accelerating the development of statistical indicators and collection of sex-disaggregated data to allow for clear tracking of trends and monitoring/evaluation of actions. There is a need to carry out gender-sensitive monitoring and evaluation of all programmes and mainstream a gender perspective in S&T educational institutions, particularly in the workplace.
  • Apart from the aforementioned ideas, STI Policy can pave the way for gender equity and inclusion by adoption of policies and practices on anti-harassment and violence against women and girls; establishment of mandatory gender-sensitisation for all staff, particularly professors and managers; development of gender action plans by institutions and their human resource units with specific goals, monitoring frameworks as well as accountability structures, which can be linked to accreditation and funding.

The gender gap in science and technology has remained as a long continued problem throughout the world, though at different scales in different regions. In developing countries, the problems with gender inequality and lack of professional opportunities for women in science and technology is more visible. While women play an important role in contemporary society and contribute greatly for its development, their under representation in the sphere of science and technology is really unfortunate. Education should become another strong factor which influences the distribution of social roles and positions. It is necessary to make sure that women have equal access to primary, secondary and higher education. Some changes in the curriculum would be useful to help girls and women to get more information about the science and technology sphere and create necessary conditions for their further employment in this sphere. Women having a major role and important contribution in the science and technology sector should be popularised in the society as they would become role models for many in the future.

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Acknowledgement:

The given article has been submitted as an ‘Open Letter’ under the Track 1 – STIP 2020 Process. I am thankful to Dr. Nimita Pandey, DST – STI Policy Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, IISc, Bengaluru, for her inputs and suggestions, in developing this article.

About the author

Reshma Haridasan

Reshma Haridasan

Reshma is a Company Secretary, affiliated with the Institute of Company Secretaries of India (ICSI). After being exposed to a diverse activities ranging from product development to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), her interests include unravelling Gender and Sustainable Development issues. She has certifications in 'Business Strategies for a Better World' from Wharton University of Pennsylvania and 'Sustainable Business Strategies' from Harvard Business School, apart from her training in Business and Commerce.

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