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Women in STEM Professions – Are we providing the ideal platform?

Posted on Monday, December 24, 2018

Positive conditioning to take up STEM-related careers can do wonders for enhanced women participation, shares Rumi Mitra

Marie Curie, the first scientist to be awarded a Nobel prize in two different categories once said, "Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained." This can be said about leading women all around the world and in India, where they are striving every day to make a mark and carve their place in society. But can the same be said about society? As people and society evolve with the growth of technology, has this resulted in a serious change of environment for women?

Technology has transformed the world more dramatically than any other revolution in history and is one of the fastest growing areas of the global economy. We are already witnessing the change that new age and disruptive technologies have on people and the way organisations operate. The emergence of technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, data analytics, blockchain and quantum computing have created an opening for a plethora of job opportunities for people with the relevant skill sets. Having said this, at a time when the opportunity has never been greater, why do we still see a lesser percentage of women taking up jobs in the fields of science and technology?

Tessy Thomas is an exemplary example of an Indian woman who persevered against all odds and became the first ever woman director of an Indian missile project. Known as the ‘Missile Woman’ of India, she represents a generation of women who dared to step out of her home and break the glass ceiling in a field that was predominantly occupied by men. Women like Tessy Thomas are few and rare in a country like India. While opportunities exist and IITs are aplenty, we still see a lesser percentage of women taking up STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related careers. We should also look at the social milieu in which girls are brought up. Are we creating the right environment for girls to view the STEM sector as a great opportunity to hone their logical skills and reasoning? Are we not providing the right opportunities? How do we address the problem at the grassroot level? Let us look at some of the problem areas and what can be done about them.

It has taken our country decades to realise the importance of educating women. Women in our country are still met with roadblocks due to preconceived notions that exist in society. Encouraged to pursue the field of Arts or subjects like Home Sciences, relatively lesser women are nudged to opt for science, technology or research. In fact, according to a report by the World Economic Forum, only about 14.3% of Indian women are science researchers. This is clearly an indication that we need to take stock of the situation for not only women’s education but also empowerment in our country.

The approach of learning STEM topics has been scientifically proven to have several advantages to students who will form the workforce in the future. Designed to helps us think with a scientific, logical and systematic perspective, STEM education develops their capabilities and equips them for new collar jobs of the future defined by new age technologies.

As organisations embrace new technologies, it has become imperative to build a future-ready workforce in an extremely demanding and competitive environment.  Further, the emergence of ‘new collar jobs’ - jobs that combine technical skills in areas such as cloud, cognitive, security, data science, etc, will require a deep knowledge base rooted in higher education. This is a healthy indication that we need to keep updating our academic curriculums to ensure that we have the right talent mix for a digital driven economy.

In the larger scheme of things, it has also come to light that special attention must be given to prepare a strong women workforce. A McKinsey report titled ‘Why Diversity Matters’ highlights that companies that are conscious of gender, racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians. Studies also suggest that India as a country will not be able to take complete advantage of the existing “demographic dividend” if women continue to stay out of jobs. While we cannot slow down the rate of technological advancement, we can invest in education and skills to increase the relevance and resilience of our people and organisations, regardless of gender or social background.

As members of this society, we must look at a two-pronged approach to address this problem. There needs to be a change in the way people view professions for women. This can be achieved from home and from an organisational perspective. A major source of encouragement and conditioning arises first from home and family. Right from elementary education in schools to the time a woman joins the workforce, she must be conditioned and nurtured by parents to look at a wider spectrum of careers. The natural tendency is to push women towards Arts related fields as these would help them balance out their time for family. Positive conditioning to take up STEM related careers can do wonders for enhanced women participation.

At an organisational level, to ensure an increasing participation of women in these professions and encourage them to take up STEM subjects as a part of their academic curriculum, requires collective efforts from all stakeholders. While the government is dedicated to push for women education, several areas like infrastructural constraints, lesser resources like money, the right faculty, lack of academic infrastructure and lack of knowledge on how to facilitate an interactive and innovative course methodology still prove to be major challenges. Therefore, government bodies, educational institutions and corporates alike need to come forward and drive collaborative programmes that can encourage women students to take up STEM-related subjects. Further, we need to work together to also identify and inculcate talent at an early stage. Our joint mission must be focussed on putting technology and design-based thinking at the forefront of reshaping and disrupting Science teaching in schools, especially less served ones.

(The author is lead, IBM Corporate Citizenship, India, South Asia)


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