The truth about women in STEM
Tackling the unspoken barriers and unconscious gender biases that obstruct greater female representation in the STEM workforce
Faye D’Souza remembers a photo that captured the nation’s imagination. “Every time ISRO has some success, we see the photos of the engineers, the women in their Kanjeevaram saris, high-fiving because they’ve put a satellite into space and there is no reason why that can’t be repeated across the board in all STEM workspaces.”
With that powerful visual in our mind’s eye, comes the tough question: Where are we going wrong when it comes to creating safe, inclusive spaces for Indian women in STEM (science, tech, engineering, mathematics)? There’s no denying the chasm exists — 43% of the total graduates in STEM are women, despite this, women make up only 14% of the STEM workforce. It tapers off even further as your gaze shifts to the top of the hierarchy, which means there are even fewer women with the power to make decisions and influence the culture. It’s a conundrum that Olay India has actively tried to draw our attention to with their #StemTheGap initiative. It aims to fight those unconscious gender biases that are holding girls and women back by restricting them to specific fields of employment.
To lure public attention towards this issue, we co-hosted a panel with D’Souza, marine biologist Divya Karnad, Indian Airforce officer Shikha Pandey, tech entrepreneur Sairee Chahal and Olay’s Priyali Kamath. It left us electrified with hope and buoyed with confidence that serious change is coming.
4 ways in which we can all help #StemTheGap
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it”
If anybody knows about storming traditionally male bastions and delivering excellence, it’s Pandey. Her resume reads like a work of fiction: international cricketer, Indian Airforce officer, and electrical engineer. It all began with a poster of Indo-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla in her bedroom as a young girl, reminding her that reaching for the stars was not just a metaphor. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. We need to have role models who are visible and start having more conversations about female role models in the home. That can persuade people that others are able to do it, so why can’t I do it?”
“All great careers need dedicated time”
As Chahal puts it, scholarship programs like the ones offered by Olay offer a foot in the door for women to break into STEM, but societal conditioning means women end up doing double the work — in the office, then at home. “A majority of the women in our workplace are between 25-45, which means a lot of them are married and have family commitments, and that takes them away from careers that need mind space, time investment, and the ability to keep up with your peers. Our expectations from men and women are very different, so we need to start changing that from the time we start bringing up our children.”
“We need to have these conversations with more men so they can recognize what’s happening”
Karnad is a champion for the oceans, but before she could take on the title of an eco-warrior, she had to learn to fight for herself. Karnad recalls how job offers would dry up the minute employers heard she had a young child, which led to her “sleeping 4 hours every night” to live up to the unreal expectations placed on her before she could earn their trust. “For men, having a child or a family is something they can use to negotiate a better financial gain, whereas, for women, it’s something that kicks them out of the field. We need to broaden the scope of these conversations and have them with more men because they’re oblivious to how these decks are stacked differently. Particularly men in power.”
“It’s not just about mentorship, but sponsorship”
As senior vice-president at Olay, Kamath points out that of the 200 scientists working in their laboratories, almost half are women. “We’re also providing scholarships for young girls to participate in education that exposes them to the best in STEM. We’re giving these girls not just tuition money, but also equipping them with tablets and data cards, so that even during these COVID-19 times, when physical schooling isn’t happening, it’s not a barrier for them.” The company is also doubling down on their calls for better representation at all levels by creating “not just mentorship, but also sponsorship programs within the company. So it’s not just giving advice and being a sounding board, but really advocating for women when it comes to placements in senior positions. We, in fact, insist that for senior management positions, on the slate of candidates being considered, we must have women represented.”