Home / Opinion / The mystery of the missing women in science

To get more women to enrol in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the elite engineering schools are considering a proposal to reserve seats for them. This will be done by adding seats—up to 20% in some IITs. In other words, the seats for men are unaffected. Moreover, women students will still have to clear the admission test and figure in the top 20 percentile of their board exams.

The recommendation won’t kick in anytime soon—reports suggest not before 2018. Yet, the proposal is timely. It comes just days before the second International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 10 February.

But, more crucially, it comes at a time when the representation of women in the sciences is dipping.

In just a year, the IITs have seen a fall in women admissions. In 2016, the number of women who cleared JEE (Joint Entrance Examination)-Advanced was 2% less than the previous year when 900 of the 9,974 students were women.

The mystery of the missing women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths is not limited to the IITs or even to India. In 2012, Women in Global Science and Technology (WISAT), a non-profit, found a knowledge gender divide in all countries it surveyed, including India and the US. The gender gap, it found, is tied to economic status, government roles and policies and access to resources. Women gain ground in countries that have health and childcare, equal pay and gender mainstreaming.

In India, the situation is a bit more nuanced. There is no shortage of women high school science and maths teachers.

According to a 2015 report by the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia, nearly one in three PhDs in science is a woman; in engineering colleges and medical schools it’s as much as 35% and 45%, respectively. It’s only at the prestigious IITs that the percentage of women students drops to single digits.

Why? “To get in, you need coaching classes, and most parents are not prepared to spend this for a daughter," says Rohini Godbole, professor at the Centre for High Energy Physics, Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

Scratch a bit deeper and the numbers continue to evaporate. At IISc, women hold only 8% of faculty positions. Naturally, no woman has ever headed it.

There has never been a woman head at the Indian Space Research Organisation(Isro)—even though the iconic image of women scientists celebrating the launch of India’s Mars mission is often used to symbolize the great surge forward by women in science.

The challenge, says Godbole, is not about convincing women to take up science. The challenge is keeping them there.

Part of the problem of high attrition is the traditional clash with family priorities—and this is true, of course, of all professions. Women feel the pressure to get married and then give family priority over professional careers.

The brunt of caring for children or parents falls disproportionately on them.

Part of the problem also is a gender bias by administrators. “Often, they will tell women that they ought to be focusing on their families," says Godbole. Moreover, she says, “Allegations of harassment or gender bias tend to be ignored."

Getting into an IIT is “only half the job done", says Ashutosh Sharma, an IIT (Kanpur) professor who is currently secretary, department of science and technology (DST). Women have to continue to be competitive to complete the course. Often, they don’t get the same opportunities as men. They may have to move or relocate for family reasons. They might want to take a break because of children. “You need intervention at each stage," says Sharma.

Included in this intervention is the KIRAN (Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing) scheme that helps women get back to science after a break and also provides for intellectual property training management for a year.

In April 2016, DST also launched India’s first accelerator for women entrepreneurs building tech ventures.

And, yet, even Sharma concedes that these programmes are just baby steps. “We need to broad-base the parameters. We cover 3,000 women scientists whereas we need to cover 30,000," he says.

The gender gap in science matters for several reasons. It goes against the grain of equal opportunities. It is patently unfair. And it denies women opportunities in a rapidly growing field—in the US, more lucrative STEM jobs are being created at three times the rate of non-STEM positions.

Above all, in an age where science and technology provide the answers to many global challenges, keeping women out means limiting potential solutions. It is possible, for instance, that women scientists might look at anaemia or malnutrition differently from men.

It is possible that a cure for cancer or AIDS could come from a woman. And it’s a shame if the lack of equal opportunities would keep humanity from gaining.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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