It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that Indian higher education system discourages women from STEM fields. The glaring lack of representation of women in STEM is a deep-rooted phenomenon. Gender based discrimination starts with patriarchal families and households. These biases are further promoted in classrooms and schools. As a result, higher education environment in India is strife with sexism and masculine culture.
Role of Schools and Families
Every year girls outshine boys in school exams. Yet, the number of women in doctoral research and workforce is significantly lesser in STEM. Schools and families are responsible for propagating the stereotype that STEM is for men. On the other hand, women are told to opt for education and occupation that are less strenuous and “suited” for them. Parents refuse to send girls to outstation coaching or support them financially. This patriarchal trend enforces women to lag behind to focus more on marriage, taking care of household chores and raising children. Thus, young girls grow up thinking low about themselves. This mindset of adults generates a sense of disassociation among young girls towards STEM field, playing a huge part in the miniscule amount of female representation.
Masculine Culture in STEM
The stereotype that men are fitted for jobs and skills in STEM fields is all pervasive. Studies show a huge gender gap in STEM fields across the world to the deep rooted sexist and masculine culture. These social hierarchies are furthered by racial, religious and casteist prejudice. According to Namrata Gupta’s book Women in Science and Technology: Confronting Inequalities, women form only 10-15% of STEM researchers and faculty members in the IITs, CSIR, AIIMS and PGIs. The number of women in private R & D labs is also few.
Daily Struggles of Women in STEM
The gender ratio problem gives an overview of the large scale problem women face in STEM fields. Moreover, the daily lives of women are fraught with myriad issues related to sexist comments on their clothing and behavior. For instance, it can be either “too masculine and aggressive” or “too feminine and timid”. As a result, the careers of women in higher education are fraught with gendered aspects.
Fatima Jabeen, a Junior Research Fellow at Zoological Survey of India, Solan, HP reveals her struggle and stressful experiences facing misogyny and Islamophobia:
“People in Indian Higher Education system have this mentality that women are unfit to work in forests. There is constant scrutiny when I go for night surveys or look for lodging on field trips. Rising in this career comes with a lot of challenges. Once, the PCCF secretary told me “madam kyu teacher nhi bn gae kya junglo me jaoge, aapki guarantee kaun lega?” (Madam, why didn’t you become a teacher, why are you going to forests? Who will take the guarantee of your safety?)
This kind discouragement is common in this field. On one of my field trip to a remote village in Rajasthan, I overheard two old people discussing how all Muslims should be slaughtered in India. I was scared to stand next to these people who despise two things most in their life – Islam and women. The incident was shocking. Muslim women can’t freely work in these spaces.”
Male Privilege in STEM
Indian higher education system creates spaces of gender discrimination in STEM. In this way, male privilege is quite prevalent in these fields.
Pragyadeep Roy from IISC Bangalore, accounted for the rampant gender bias, queer phobia and the prevalence of male privilege in STEM fields. “Women in STEM fields are morally policed about their attire during field trips. Female researchers are asked to wear baggy or loose clothes for “protection” on field trips. People stereotype women as the weaker sex and discourage them from field work and other labour intensive works. However, I have never faced these issues. The privilege I enjoy as a man is disturbing. The academic and social structure has an extremely bigoted attitude towards members of the LGBTQ community. Anyone who comes out of the closet has to go through bullying, ostracisation and harassment from their peers”.
While there is no lack of potential or talent, a constant hindrance to a woman’s freedom to grow in STEM fields. Indian higher education system must rectify its sexist and gender biased culture. Society as a whole, starting from families, teachers and peers must learn feminist causes. Women in STEM are constantly breaking stereotypes by excelling in a field dominated by men. Indian women like Uma Ramakrishna, Aparajita Dutta and Anamika Aiyadurai have carved an iconic status. However, there is a need for more awareness about inspirational Indian women in STEM.
Progressive measures and projects are being led around the world to tackle sexism in STEM. For example, Kode with Klossy, is an initiative by supermodel Karlie Kloss for teen girls to learn coding. However, Indian higher education has still a long way to go to empower women in STEM!
Also read: 8 Women in STEM who made their mark in 2019.
Featured Image Source: Cell Press