Opinion

Why promoting gender diversity in STEM is crucial

Deepthi Ravula | Updated on August 25, 2020 Published on August 25, 2020

Women account for less than 30% of STEM researchers globally. Avenues to cultivate their talent and encourage more diversity in the field are being taken, but we need larger, more collaborative efforts

We need more women in STEM. According to UNESCO, women account for less than 30 per cent of researchers in science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines across the world. In India, this figure amounts to just 14 per cent. And there are factors contributing to this trend. In a recent TimesJobs survey on women in STEM, over half the women who participated said that they were paid less than their male counterparts.

The strength of scientific and technological enterprise relies on diversity. Scientists and STEM professionals tackle some of the most complex problems of our time. Solutions to such challenges are rarely found by individual effort or homogenous teams. Rather, they demand diverse perspectives and approaches to problem solving. Diversity is a prerequisite for innovation and the cornerstone of scientific, technological and economic progress.

In recent times, research institutions, start-ups and corporates have recognised the importance of bridging the gender gap to foster diversity in the workforce. Many have taken commendable steps to empower women with the right technical skills and provide them with career growth opportunities.

Cultivating diversity and talent

Gender diversity in STEM is cultivated by encouraging and mentoring talent. For mentoring women, such efforts are more fruitful when led by women themselves. Female role models play a significant role in inspiring STEM professionals. A few years ago, a study undertaken by researchers from the University of Massachusetts found that female engineering undergraduates who were paired with female mentors reported more motivation, more self-assuredness and less anxiety than those who had no mentor or a male mentor. They were also less likely to drop out of their courses and were keener to pursue engineering professions after graduation.

Today, many organisations recognise the importance of women-led mentorship. For instance, start-ups like Robotix Learning Solutions and RoboKart provide robotics skilling for girls at the school level. Several corporates, too, have led initiatives to provide skilling opportunities for young girls aspiring for STEM careers. In 2019, IBM launched a STEM for Girls programme in collaboration with State governments. It has since onboarded more than 69,000 girls. Likewise, Mastercard’s Girls4Tech programme doubled its reach this year over 2018. The programme is into its fifth year. Some tech corporates, like Google and Accenture, are also working to fix the gender gap in top management with mentorship programmes to help women reach the C-suite.

Besides start-ups and corporates, global initiatives offer a platform for women to showcase their work in STEM. Take the example of Women in Machine Learning and Data Science, which hosts talks by women and gender-minority individuals working in the space. The organisation also hosts workshops, hackathons and networking events. Similarly, PyLadies is another international community that provides a support network for women Python coders and connects them to the larger Python community.

Powering economic growth

STEM plays a significant role in the Indian economy. India’s information technology sector contributed to 7.7 per cent of the GDP in 2017 and generated $180 billion in revenue last year. It also generated 8.73 lakh jobs from 2014 to 2019. India also has a vibrant tech start-up ecosystem of more than 8,900 enterprises, and Indian research institutes are producing ground-breaking work across STEM disciplines. Bridging the gender divide can accelerate this growth.

India has no dearth of women aspiring for STEM careers. We produce the highest number of female graduates in the world — 40 per cent of STEM graduates are women. Yet, India ranks 19th in employing women STEM graduates. Evidently, university degrees are yet to translate into an adequate representation in the job market.

Economic growth is tied to scientific and technological advancement. But this, in turn, depends on having an efficient — and therefore, a more gender-diverse — workforce. A study published by the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation last year, which surveyed 13,000 companies across 70 countries, found that organisations with greater gender diversity in their management reported sizeable profit increases. Three-quarters of the businesses that were surveyed stated that they increased profits by five to 20 per cent. Further, 57 per cent believed that having more women in top management led to greater talent attraction and retention. It also increased innovation, creativity, openness and an improvement in the reputation of the organisation. The study also analysed data from 186 nations between 1991 and 2017 and found that boosting the employment of women was associated with greater national economic growth.

Much is being done to encourage more women to take up careers in STEM. What we need now is greater coordination to address the issues effectively. With more women graduating and aspiring for careers in STEM fields, it is vital to create the right support mechanism for them. It is the only way to ensure gender diversity and enable women to pursue their goals confidently.

The writer is CEO of WE Hub

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Published on August 25, 2020
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