Editor’s Note: This month, that is February 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism and STEM. We seek to challenge the exclusionary biases in the field, by inviting various articles on the works of women, queer individuals, and people from marginalised communities in STEM, the ways in which the sciences are biased, stereotypes and misconceptions in STEM, and the experiences of people from marginalised identities in the field. If you’d like to share your story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The field of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is part of the educational pedagogy of the modern schooling system. In this article, we are going to look at the the institutional practices of STEM based higher learning and research institutions in India and their formal and informal practices towards the marginalised communities.
When we look at the debate surrounding institutionalism, one can understand that there are different kinds of institutions at play. Some perpetuate the existing social, political, cultural and set of structural orders, and other forms of institutions consist of formal values and framework. The formal institutions possess informal constraints (norms of behaviour, conventions, and self-imposed codes of conduct including the social constraints), and their enforcement characteristics.
According to W.R. Scott, the formal institution settings are based on the following pillars; regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive. The regulative pillar is legally sanctioned and based on the order of the rules. The basis of compliance for the normative pillar of an institution is social obligation with binding expectations and moral governance. The cultural-cognitive pillar has the following traits; taken-for-granted shared understanding, mimetic to old institutional orders and based on orthodoxy and common cultural beliefs.
Of the 23 IITs, 15 — including the IITs at Mumbai, Kanpur and Kharagpur — have no ST faculty at all.
Over time, human society met with revolutionary changes. This is very evident in the past few centuries. The rise of STEM which in turn facilitated the human’s departure from religious orthodoxy has provided the world with the industrial revolution. Furthermore, it has attempted to fulfil the human desires arising out of material needs. While we look at how the formal STEM based research and learning institutions operate through institutional practices, it is imperative to understand the ways in which they reproduce and perpetuate unjust social and cultural institutions.
Let us first look at the representation of the oppressed social groups in the discipline itself. The Indian constitution and its public policy provides for the positive discrimination of the oppressed sections in the name of affirmative action (this applies to access to education and employment). However, provisions for mere political nature of the idea of social justice, doesn’t lead to any greater positive changes.
The 2017-18 data of IIT Madras shows that 7 percent SCs and 0.8 percent STs are pursuing their PhD’s. As per the data furnished by the MHRD, of the 8,856 sanctioned faculty strength, 4,876 are from the general category, 329 are OBCs, 149 are SCs and a mere 21 are from the ST community. In effect, across 23 IITs, including new and old, only 9 percent of the current faculty are SCs, STs or OBCs together. Of the 23 IITs, 15—including the IITs at Mumbai, Kanpur and Kharagpur—have no ST faculty at all. IIT Mandi has no SC faculty while two other IITs—at Goa and Dharwad—have no faculty belonging to the OBC category. SCs and STs are just 2.5 percent of the total faculty pool. The representation in other STEM institutions such as IISERs and IISC is more or less same as IITS in India.
Another important setback to STEM in India comes from a lack of sensitisation of STEM professionals, researchers and students towards social and cultural institutions. Due to the lack of commitment to deal with these prejudices, discriminatory biases and other related practices the social exclusion continues to make STEM be socially exclusive and discriminatory. Rohit Vemula, who committed suicide (institutional killing) in 2016 was himself a student of STEM. He first casted his vote in the Student’s Union election in 2009 as a Master’s student of Life Sciences. Over the years his encounter with institutional practices in sciences made him to switch to sociology.
The students who are hailing from most unprivileged backgrounds are burdened with layers of disadvantages at many instances and fall behind an average privileged student in terms of academic performance.
The notion of merit that is grounded in the conscience of academia often ignores the concept of privilege. The students who are hailing from most unprivileged backgrounds are burdened with layers of disadvantages at many instances and fall behind an average privileged student in terms of academic performance. Instead of helping them to overcome these adversities, the academia in general and STEM in particular plays to their disadvantages.
People from marginalised communities, especially women, are systematically alienated from the sciences, not just as students but also as producers of knowledge. This leads to systems of knowledge that are hegemonic and disregard people’s subjective experiences.
As per the National Science Foundation, it is predicted that 80% of the jobs going to be created in the next decade will require some form of math and science skills. We are now at a stage where the numbers of STEM jobs are growing at a fast pace and currently exceeding the number of STEM graduates. To balance the demand, we are designing better graduate education for the STEM workforce. According to an estimate of UNESCO, only 14% of the researchers in India are women. Women are less likely to pursue a career in STEM fields. There is a lack of support a woman receives from her family and children to take up a job in the technical fields. Many men and women hold the belief that family and household duties are primarily the responsibility of women. The society also projects a self-sacrificing woman as the ideal mother, wife, and a daughter, even if that means a sacrifice of her career.
The educational policies which we have in private and public sphere in India do talk about including diverse culture and backgrounds. Tragically, this expansion in student diversity doesn’t generally happen in our institutional culture. The unexamined or invisibilised biases that occur in Indian higher education institutions forbid diverse students to perform in academic sphere.
Deshpande talks about two kinds of discrimination: merit-discrimination and resource-discrimination. In ‘merit’ based discrimination he reiterates that how merit itself is predetermined to include certain section of the society and who doesn’t contain those predetermined criteria will automatically get excluded from that merit race. In Indian society those excluded are majorly from marginalised section, dalits, tribal, women, and endangered tribals.
The common argument which we hear in our day today life is that reservations and affirmative action would put negative impact on the industry’s competitiveness because majorly we see that merit describes your ability. But we need to ask ourselves – what is merit, really? And what relationship does it have to privilege?
Featured Image Source: ctech.iitd.ac.in