Home / Opinion / Views /  Breaking the glass ceiling: More Indian women embracing STEM

Thirty percent of those appearing for the Joint Entrance Examination, the tough first stage filter through which students have to pass to qualify for the tougher stage-two filter to enter India’s premier Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), are women. This is the highest proportion yet. This is a welcome development that would not just raise women’s status in Indian society but also contribute to a fuller realization of India’s economic potential as a nation with the world’s largest pool of young people.

Only a quarter of India’s women aged 15 or more is employed in waged work or looking for work (the figure is 19% in the World Bank’s database). This shows that the labour force participation rate is very low for women in India. For Brazil, that figure is 49%, and 62% for China, according to the World Bank. If the bulk of women, roughly half the population, do not work, that would cause India’s total output to be significantly lower than what it could be if everyone who could work managed to work, man or woman.

There is work, and there is work. It is jobs in knowledge sectors that not just add value but also determine the nation’s future competitiveness. Knowledge work is possible when knowledge is produced. That calls for researchers, particularly in areas of science and technology. According to UN data (UNESCO Institute for Statistics), in 2018, India had 232 researchers per million population, while the figure for China was 1,307. For China, that figure had grown to more than 1,500 by 2020.

Clearly, India has to increase the number of researchers, contribute to advancing knowledge, and keep the Indian economy competitive vis-à-vis economic and strategic competitors. If half the eligible population, that is, the female half, is kept out of serious training in science and technology, that would depress the nation’s ability to produce sufficient numbers of researchers and, thus, knowledge, the research output.

Several factors militate against women’s enrolment in science and technology courses. The societal prejudice that women are not good at science and mathematics is a major factor. It dissuades parents from encouraging daughters to take ‘hard’ subjects, teachers from encouraging girls to pursue science courses, and recruiters from hiring women scientists, technologists and technicians.

And this is not an India-specific problem. Space scientist and Yale professor Meg Urry wrote in the Washington Post, based on her own experience and that of other women, that women left science not because they were not gifted but because of the “slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success." India is better placed. In fact, 43% of students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are girls.

Research organizations in India’s public sector, such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), hire and promote women without seeming prejudice or with less prejudice than elsewhere. A woman, Tessy Thomas, led the team that developed the Agni V missile at the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

Such role models are important for young people. According to the World Bank, India’s population of children aged 14 or below is 26% of India’s total population. That makes it 364 million children, at ages where stereotypes have not yet solidified to set them on career paths that would warp their potential for reasons unrelated to inherent ability.

A little under half of them are girls (thanks to the longstanding, traditional preference for sons, and its implications for girl children, born and unborn, not quite half of them are girls).

Positive role models would encourage them to make choices in education and careers that realize their abilities and ambitions rather than conform to societal norms of gender-appropriate roles.

That 30% of JEE candidates are girls is good news, for it improves the chances of girls entering India’s premier technology institutes in larger numbers and encourages more and more girls to pursue, rather than abandon, their interest in science and technology.

The person who stood first in the JEE exam of 2022 happened to be a girl: Sneha Pareekh. This is unlikely not to have encouraged more girls to opt for the JEE in the year that followed. The number of girls registered for JEE went up to 260,000 in 2023 from 250,000 in the previous year, even as the total number registered declined by 6,000.

May these proportions continue to rise to take India and Indian women to greater heights of achievement.


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