2020 saw more women than men pursuing higher education in India. This increase in female enrollment is a step towards equal opportunities for women in a country where access to education has long been a challenge. Even so, the road ahead for female graduates is far from smooth. India’s workforce still exhibits a significant gender gap, with women making up only 58% of the total workforce. And the situation is not improving, with the number of women employees gradually decreasing.
As of 2022, female employment is estimated to be at a mere 9%. Sadly, a significant portion of this number comes from women in the unorganised sector, who are more likely to belong to marginalised communities. These women face not only social and cultural discrimination but also limited opportunities for career growth. Although the enrollment of students belonging to marginalised communities is reported to have increased, the representation of these students is not ideal across top universities or diverse fields.
The other side of the coin shows that even women with higher levels of formal education are struggling to land and retain jobs in the organised sector. It has been reported far and wide that India has more women graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) than most developed countries. But, of the 43% of these women, barely 14% are employed.
The question remains, why are India’s women not able to contribute to research and development in the country? Could their untapped potential be crucial in building a more inclusive and sustainable future?
Navigating the hurdles for women in STEM
Researchers and scientists are notoriously underpaid, making the career a less lucrative choice already. Even within this disheartening reality, there exists a gender pay gap. Right off the bat, STEM presents a unique challenge for women in terms of career advancement. As a scientist, research publications are a key metric for progress. Unfortunately, men in India dominate the publication landscape, with three times the likelihood of publishing a paper and a higher chance of their work being cited in future research. It comes as no surprise then, that less than 20% of the STEM faculty positions across top universities in the country are held by women.
With more women earning top-notch educational qualifications, it’s evident that women in STEM are just as smart and capable as their male counterparts. Unfortunately, the elimination of systemic bias is lagging behind these rising enrollment numbers. Over the years, numerous women in the field have spoken about patriarchal barriers holding them back, whether it be in acquiring grants, scholarships or research positions. Ensuring the safety of female researchers, especially in the field, is still seen as a burden, while male researchers are able to move freely. Women researchers are also less likely to describe their work positively and struggle with the “confidence gap,” a result of internalised biases.
For those who brave the storm, the reality outside of institutions is seldom easier. Marriage at a specific age is still a tradition strictly followed by many. Living in a city away from family as an unmarried woman is frowned upon in some cases, and the ability to keep a daughter at home without needing her to earn is seen as a sign of wealth. Marriage and the traditional expectations to take up domestic duties put a brake on women’s careers, with only 32% of married women continuing to work. The challenges are even greater for rural women, for whom a lack of transportation, sociocultural discrimination and the digital divide all keep them from reaching the same opportunities as their urban counterparts; even as more and more women from low-income families in these areas pursue higher education.
While the Indian government is attempting to encourage more women scientists through awards and growth schemes, true success requires systemic change and mindset shifts. With India being one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, empowering women in the field of science and research is now more important than ever.
Climate science is no longer just about numbers and data, it’s about the people affected by it. Climate change impacts are not equal, with marginalised communities feeling its effects the hardest. It’s clear that societal inequalities contribute to environmental problems, and ecological degradation is causing human rights violations. The climate crisis is now recognised as a humanitarian crisis.
Closing the gender gap, advancing climate action
The “climate gap” as it is called (yes, yet another gap), finds women to be among the groups most impacted by climate change. Picture this: after a flood, the women struggle to access sanitation and hygiene leading to a greater likelihood of related diseases. In rural regions, women – usually responsible for acquiring water – travel longer unsafe distances as water scarcity rises. But it’s not just a surface-level problem, the impacts of the climate gap run deep and last long. Just take a look at the Sundarbans as a prime example.
In the geographically vulnerable Sundarbans islands, most of the population lives in poverty. The primary occupations here – fishing and farming – are dependent on the environment. Extremities such as repeated cyclonic storms, therefore, threaten livelihoods and financial security. School dropouts are seen as a need for increased earning potential, often resulting in child brides and human trafficking. While existing mangrove restoration projects are a critical part of climate adaptation in the region, there is a dire need to focus on gender equity and women empowerment to prevent these cascading impacts. The rise in human trafficking and child marriage needs to be seen in conjunction with the climate crisis in the region and not as a standalone problem in the first place.
Interestingly, men are said to gravitate more towards “thing-oriented” fields such as engineering while women are more likely to opt for “people-oriented” fields. It comes as no surprise then, that only 16 out of 28 State Action Plans on Climate Change mention gender today. Moreover, a majority of these recognise gender as male/female binaries and point more towards the impact on women instead of adaptive capacities. Our climate policies are not built to address or change the climate gap.
When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, who better to turn to than women in STEM? In fact, “gendered research” – focusing on gender-responsible STEM development – has proven to yield more accurate results, with a higher rate of publishing and citations. Women in STEM have the potential to lead investigations and develop climate policies that take into account the needs and perspectives of those most affected, leading to more well-rounded solutions. By promoting gender diversity in STEM, we can close the gender gap and ensure that our efforts to tackle the climate crisis are effective, empathetic and just.
Systemic changes and mindset shifts are critical to encouraging more women in STEM research. For those in the system, acknowledging privilege and uplifting peers from marginalised communities is vital for sustained change. Empowering women in STEM to drive climate action is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do.