Fewer women are choosing to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects that offer the best jobs, and Melinda Gates, co-chair of the US$ 39.6 billion-endowed Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wants to change that.
“Computer science offers the best jobs in the economy. The technology sector is connected to all industry, it offers great pay and the best opportunities, and girls are losing points by not studying STEM subjects,” said Gates, in an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times.
In the US, the number of women opting for STEM in grad school has halved over three decades and while women make up more than 51% of the workforce, they hold 26% of computing-related jobs, shows US Department of Labour data.
“I am a computer science major myself, and when I was in grad school in the ‘80s, 37% computer science grads were women. Now it’s down to 18%,” says Gates, saying India, with its powerful tech industry, must work to make sure it doesn’t go the US way.
There is no rigorous data on why girls are not choosing or dropping out of STEM in the US, but Gates is working on getting it. “I can’t speak for India but girls in the US are not choosing science at grade, middle school, high school and undergraduate levels because when they look at the industry, it doesn’t look welcoming,” she says.
Fewer woman are opting for STEM courses in India too, with 2016 registering a 2% drop over last year in the number of girls who made it to B. Tech courses in India’s 23 IITs. Just 840 women cracked the entrance exam (8% of the 10,500 seats) in 2016, compared to a little over 1,000 (close to 10%) in 2015, shows data from the Joint Admission Board that conducts the Joint Entrance Examination Advanced for all IITs. No woman made it to the top 100 ranks, with 133 being the highest rank achieved by a woman.
Getting girls hooked to science is a must. “One reason could be computer games, which are an entry point for boys. When I was growing up, they were gender neutral, but with the shooting and fighting games getting popular, girls lost interest,” says Gates.
“Role-modelling is important, girls must have women to look up to who are proof that they can make it big, freshman courses and computer camps keep them interested, as does inclusive messaging – posters of classrooms, for example, must include girls,” says Gates.
“In India, as women in science and technology must speak out and be celebrated and honoured so girls think, ‘I could be like them’ and start to work towards it,” she says.
Barriers to girls choosing STEM in India include travel and safety limitations, centrality of career progression around male working patterns, inflexible work hours and negative stereotyping, among others, concluded a 2015 British Council and Government of India report.