Focus on retaining girls in STEM fields
Policy has to focus on retaining them by introducing women mentors, creating a more supportive environment for women at workplaces, and moving to erase discrimination
The 2020-21 All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report has three main takeaways on student enrollment: First, the total enrolment in higher education increased to nearly 41.4 million in 2020-21 from 38.5 million in 2019-20; second, women’s enrolment increased to 20.1 million in 2020-2021 from 18.8 million in 2019-20; and third, women’s representation was under 30% in engineering and less than 40% in management courses. While the first two are encouraging, the third should worry educationists and policymakers. It is not surprising that this is happening, and the problem starts at home. While boys are pushed to opt for science and mathematics, girls are pushed towards social sciences. Even when girl students choose science, many don’t enter the job market because of hurdles such as family commitments and economic barriers. Studies have shown vast also gender disparity when one compares careers in terms of the nature and duration of employment contracts, rank and seniority. Then, there is the problem of fewer role models, peers and leaders.
It’s not enough to feed the STEM pipeline and ecosystem by increasing the number of women students in these subjects. Policy has to focus on retaining them by introducing women mentors, creating a more supportive environment for women at workplaces, and moving to erase discrimination in opportunities, family strictures and social norms. The University Grants Commission has made a good start by asking institutes to conduct school outreach programmes and talk to parents in special interactive sessions. Giving women equal opportunities in STEM will not only narrow the gender gap and help women become economically secure, but also allow the country to reap the full benefit of the skilled female labour force.