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 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, 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.
I was recently invited to a confluence on POSH at a leading tech company. I noticed very few women in attendance and even fewer as a part of the organising committee. This seemed like an anomaly since the push for women to explore STEM has been relatively high in the recent past. A quick search showed approximately 40% women enrolled into engineering schools every year. Then why were there such few women who pursued it as a career? A couple of women who I knew had studied STEM subjects but had changed their career trajectory after graduating, explained the systemic sexism that women face in universities in India which deterred them from pursuing it any further.
The gender stereotyping starts in the pre-admission stage itself. Kanksshi Agarwal, a former student of Rajiv Gandhi Proudyogiki Vishwavidyalaya, recounted that women were dissuaded from opting for the core STEM branches like chemical, mechanical, manufacturing and industrial engineering. They were invariably steered towards Computer Science as the most lucrative option. The counsellors had advised her against working in a factory which would be “too gruelling”. They further tried to scare her on the perils of not being placed after college except in Public Sector Units (PSUs). Similar stereotyping is faced later when the women are put under a spotlight during laboratory experiments questioning their capability and interest in operating heavy machinery, turbines, and welding machines.
Even though more women have now started opting for STEM, the gender ratio in universities remains dismal. Apart from the Computer Science, and Electronics and Communications departments, most universities have approximately a 1:3 ratio of women to men in their classrooms. In branches like mechanical and industrial engineering, the ratio of women to men can go as low as 1:22. This fact is consistently depicted even in Bollywood films – Dil Chahta Hai, Rang De Basanti, 3 idiots, to name a few – that makes excuses for men from STEM universities. The skewed gender ratio creates an uncomfortable environment for women, where they are singled out and scrutinised at every step of the way – inside and outside campus.
Within the classroom, casual sexism is a daily phenomenon from faculty members and peers alike. The female teachers were naturally outnumbered by men and were disregarded by their male students over their competency in comparison to their counterparts.
Within the classroom, casual sexism is a daily phenomenon from faculty members and peers alike. The female teachers were naturally outnumbered by men and were disregarded by their male students over their competency in comparison to their counterparts. Ravali P of Gokaraju Rangaraju Institute of Engineering and Technology described the ostracisation they faced during classes – male teachers were uneasy while interacting with them, avoiding their eye and not entertaining their questions. An overt act of discrimination was also experienced during assessments. Women, who scored well, were discredited by their peers, belittling their achievement as a favour granted by the faculty by virtue of them being female. In group projects the boys were often graded higher than their female counterparts.
From being expected to take notes to being excluded from outdoor activities on campus, from bizaRre differences in curfew timings to freedom of clothing, women in engineering colleges endure vast degrees of marginalisation
Sexism is further perpetrated by institutional provisions like curfews and dress codes. At Vellore Institute of Technology, an equivalent of the “romeo squad” would keep vigilance on campus ensuring that the genders could not interact. In other universities, segregation can go to the extent of separate canteens and separate library seating. Neena* recollected days of college festivals in colleges in Andhra Pradesh when bouncers were hired to ensure that no interaction can happen even amongst the students in the audience. The moral policing in universities has led to verbal abuse of women, shaming them on their attire, ethics, and upbringing.
From being expected to take notes to being excluded from outdoor activities on campus, from bizarre differences in curfew timings to freedom of clothing, women in engineering colleges endure vast degrees of marginalisation. Not only does this hamper their education but was stated as primary cause for not opting a career in STEM after graduating. Almost all the women I spoke to confessed to entertaining thoughts of dropping out at some point of their four year courses. It was therefore natural to not continue in their chosen stream on completing graduation. The prevalence of sexist practices in Indian institutions has become a leading cause for fewer women in STEM in the country.
To encourage more women to continue into the field, the integration needs to start at the institutional level – in the classrooms, at internships, and at work place. Universities have made efforts to bridge the gender gap in enrolment but have done little to ensure a conducive environment for them. A possible balance in the male-female ratio at the faculty level, thrust in leadership positions for women, and equal rules could help create a culture where women are taken seriously in the field!
Featured Image Source: World Economic Forum