Science & Technology

Why there are fewer women in science

This field and participation of women in it is a reflection of society, which hasn’t considered investing time or money in the gender’s science career

 
By Geetha Bali
Last Updated: Wednesday 09 January 2019
Women scientists
Credit: Getty Images Credit: Getty Images

Only 15 per cent of the Indian research and development workforce are women, while the global average is 30 per cent, says National Task Force on women in science report. But, the magnitude of gender difference in science is quite significant in India. The picture is no different in science and technology teaching institutions.

While reasons are multiple, the most important one is mindset, which has been targeting women right from their cradles. We never see a year-old baby as a baby, but a girl or a boy. This gets a push from our academic books that breed this discrimination. I remember reading a book meant for toddlers published in the USA that said, “Seven piglets were adventurous and went out, while three remained at home as they were girls.” Barring a small section of the society, everyone including parents, teachers, and educational institutions not only take no steps to encourage girls to pursue science, but contribute towards the contrary directly or indirectly. A very small percentage of girls are able to overcome this deterring environment, develop interest in science and pursue it.  

The number of institutions offering arts and commerce outnumber those offering science. This arises a need for greater investment. A majority of women’s colleges offer arts and commerce rather than science. I was told a university declined women’s colleges permission to offer science saying they are poorly equipped while permitting coeducational institutions with similar shortcomings to teach science.  “Women don’t need science,” is at the back of many minds.

It is certainly more challenging for women pursuing science to excel due to the various hurdles they face and the bias that operates against them in almost all institutions. When it comes to peer recognition, women are at loss as they muster less support.

At Indian Science Congress, the 106th edition of which ends on January 7, 2019, women almost never deliver public lectures, rarely give plenary or invited lectures and are rarely involved in panel discussions. Majority of women participants in the congress are young researchers submitting posters and a few giving lectures in sectional meetings.

This made me start the Women Science Congress programme hoping to encourage more accomplished women scientists to participate, act as role models for budding women scientists and create a platform for networking and mentoring. The other objective was to showcase the contributions of women scientists in the country and change people’s mindset that women are less suited for science. One more objective was to deliberate on how science and technology can empower women.

Women also contribute to the current situation. Only a small percentage of women who do pursue science convert it into a career. Many women engineers, PhD degree holders and masters degree holders in science who did not pursue it any further. While the circumstances they face may be largely responsible, but many give up easily. Majority of those who seek early retirement are women.  Information technology is one sector that is utilising women’s talents more effectively. Teaching profession comes next, especially in when it comes to biology.

While men network and welcome other men quite easily, women do not. Women in high positions rarely groom other women.  When I was the 99th president of the Indian Science Congress Association, I received several letters from men in India and abroad seeking invitation to attend science congress. Not a single such request came from any woman scientist, I had to coax some of them to participate. 

This skewed thinking that women are less suited for science and the damage it is causing needs to be taken more seriously.

First and foremost, the books, the stories taught, the lessons written should me made gender neutral.  Steps can be taken to strengthen science education in women’s institutions. Though I was sceptic about the relevance or need for women-only institutions in the beginning, I realised as the vice-chancellor of a women’s university that these institutions provide the best platform to address many issues that concern women. The Women’s Technology Park I started in our university soon attracted rural women eager to learn. The importance and benefits of team work, networking and being proactive should form an important part of soft skill training offered for women.

In our educational system, there is too much of categorisation that starts too early. Science including physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology should be taught for all up to the 12th grade and beyond too, if possible. This is to ensure that everyone keeps abreast with the developments in science and technology and reaps the benefits for better living. Many students, including girls, may develop interest in science if they have a good foundation in the subject. Teaching science needs laboratory infrastructure and many schools lack such facilities resulting in poor education in high schools which makes students, more so women, diffident of pursuing science at college level.

Special attention should be paid to better infrastructure and teaching methods for science in high schools.

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