How to bridge India’s gender gap in STEM
While we applaud successful women, we must also invest in policies to counterbalance the conflicting messages our culture imposes on girls.
The gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is an area of concern. STEM institutions worldwide use multiple choice question (MCQ)-based tests as the first or only step for admissions, but young women fare disproportionately less well than men in these tests. For example, in the 2021 Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE), women comprised 23% of the applicants, but only 11% of the candidates who qualified. Scholars Hirshfield, Moore, Brown (1995) proposed that this may be due to a “confidence gap” in females and males, ie the confidence to decide what to guess. Supporting this idea, girls perform better than boys in the non-MCQ Class 12 examinations (Singh and Pathak, 2010).
Changing the MCQ exam format is one way to address this gap. More equitable access to quality education and extra coaching that a typical student undergoes, is another. Even as we work towards these, the skewed MCQ exam performance should motivate us to reflect on how social and cultural mores undermine a young woman’s confidence at every turn, starting from when she learns that “things are different because she’s a girl”.
Interactions with parents, family, neighbours, teachers, friends, and the larger society impact how high a girl will aim in her career. If one word were to encapsulate the difference between boys and girls in these interactions, it is: Freedom. For an IIT aspirant to acquire the necessary academic background, she must feel free to articulate her interest in STEM fields, to believe she deserves financial support for extra classes, free time to study, and the liberty to travel to tuitions. For her to be confident in her exam answers, she needs an environment free from persistent advice from people on what she should do and how she should do it: Sit (legs crossed), laugh (not open-mouthed), be out of the house (not too late), choose subjects (that are “better” for girls), get married and have children (by a “certain age”).
Interactions with peers are also gendered. Girls can’t “appear too smart”. There’s a narrow range of acceptable social traits a girl can display to be perceived as likeable, and these traits — not how capable or talented she may be — often govern her social position. Deepa Narayan’s book, Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women, underscores how girls are socialised to undervalue themselves in ways that boys are not. The combined effect of unwarranted advice is that many girls feel worthy only if they fit a certain set of parameters — such as flexible ambitions that may be compromised when needed depending on their future in-laws or spouse. While young boys, too, face societal expectations — that they must be breadwinners — they are not shackled with the relentless advice that limits girls from having ambitions.
For women who do make it through IIT exams or into PhD programmes, these early inequities morph into daily micro-aggressions that professional women face. For example, frequent interruptions when they speak up, being asked to “calm down” when they are being assertive, or the expectation that they will accept jobs in support positions because their husband has a “good position already”. The continued disproportionate attrition right from entrance exams through subsequent professional milestones, called “the leaky pipeline”, has its roots in the early programming young girls receive.
Can this be reversed? Indeed it can, through special initiatives such as Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s Vigyan Vidushi summer programmes in physics, mathematics, and computer sciences, aimed at women students halfway through their master’s degree. Spanning three weeks, the initiative offers subject-specific content classes, inspiring career path presentations, mentoring sessions, and workshops by top-notch women scientists. The tremendously positive feedback is an indication of the burning need to have such spaces for women to learn, grow, and thrive. If schools and colleges are mandated to offer such programmes suitably tuned to different levels, we could have entire cadres of women who needed only a small opening to allow their talents and ambitions to manifest into successful careers.
While we applaud successful women and express concern that there aren’t more of them, we must also invest in policies to counterbalance the conflicting messages our culture imposes on its girls. We must encourage them to claim the freedom to dream.
Shubha Tole is a neuroscientist and the dean of Graduate Studies at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India. She chaired the Women in Science committee of the Indian Academy of Sciences from 2018-2022
The views expressed are personal