According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2023, women make up only 29.2 per cent of all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers across 146 countries. In India, research by Muralidhar and Ananthanarayanan (2023) highlighted that across 100 Indian universities, only 16.6 per cent of the overall STEM faculty were women. Within this, the latest All India Survey on Higher Education (2020-21) reports women make up 42.3 per cent of the sample in STEM education, including undergraduate, postgraduate, MPhil, and PhD courses. However, within this too, girls are concentrated in life sciences, with programmes such as B.Tech comprising only 28.7 per cent of women. Across premier institutions such as IITs, women constitute about 20 per cent of the sample.

The gaps in STEM arise in the early phases in girls’ education. Social conditioning arising from existing norms and perceptions about the roles of girls and women in society often leads in shaping the choices that girls make while enrolling themselves into higher education.

Interventions that inspire younger girls to meaningfully engage with STEM need to take shape early. Programmes like Vigyaan Jyoti implemented by the Department of Science and Technology comprising activities such as counselling, role-model interactions, etc., currently target high school students. Similar interventions targeting younger students implemented at an earlier stage could prove useful. Similarly, fortifying Foundational Literacy and Numeracy outcomes through increased financial investment, gender-responsive teacher-training modules and robust assessment and monitoring frameworks can all contribute to improved higher-education outcomes for girls.

Retention challenge

The other major challenge is the retention of women within the STEM ecosystem. Early data from Key Global Workforce Insights Report (2015) suggest that even when women choose STEM careers, 45 per cent reported challenges in upward mobility and as many as 81 per cent believed that there is a gender-bias in the internal evaluation processes. Further, the government’s Labour Force Survey in 2020-21 suggests a gender pay-gap, with men earning 35 per cent more than women across all sectors, thus demotivating the intent to stay in the labour force. Evidence from professors at IIT Kanpur found that women working as scientists in lab-based occupations face isolation in male dominated labs that often manifest in lack of support for women colleagues, and losing out on networking opportunities for women that hinder upward mobility. Such trends often also end up in undervaluing women’s research and findings within the labs.

At an institutional level, policies that afford flexibility of time, comprehensive child-care provisions, and supportive infrastructure are crucial. Addressing the gender-pay gap in STEM holds potential to incentivise women to persist in STEM careers. The Dept. of Science and Technology has introduced the GATI (Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions) charter which is a voluntary, signatory charter to nudge research institutions to support diversity and inclusion. The charter encourages gender-agnostic hiring, maternity leaves, non-discriminatory appraisals, etc., and has shown promising results across 30 pilot institutions such as IIT Delhi, University of Delhi, Jamila Milia Islamia, etc. Making these charters mandatory rather than voluntary, thus, has the potential to retain more women in prestigious institutions.

Facilitating re-entry is essential for retaining women in the field. Returnship programmes adopted by few companies, have demonstrated promise in facilitating the reintegration of women into workplaces after career breaks. The state can activate private sector to enable entry and re-entry of women in STEM education and occupations.

Sona and Sayak are at IWWAGE, and Devika is an Associate at TQH