The Indian government has proposed progressive reforms to increase literacy among girls in the country, yet STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses largely remain a male bastion. Digital disruptions have transformed the way companies conduct their business today, giving rise to the need for a technologically competent workforce.
Research indicates that India’s digital core sectors are expected to create 60 to 65 million jobs by 2025, most of which require functional STEM skills. However, the field has witnessed low participation from women, which puts them at a high risk of being displaced by technology.
In a panel discussion on ‘STEM Mindset: The key to a better future for girls in India’, Shivani Muthanna, Associate Program Producer at YourStory spoke with Arunima Sen, STEM Designer & Innovator; Tithi G Tewari, Founder & MD, SmartVizX; and Madhurima Agarwal, Director, Engineering Programs and Leader, NetApp Excellerator to understand the STEM mindset, how women can overcome self-limiting beliefs, and how the pandemic has accelerated opportunities for women.
Understanding the STEM mindset
The STEM mindset is all about being curious, inquisitive and innovative, according to Sen. Describing her experience, she says, “I feel it’s about taking in the bad with good. I have been fortunate to discover and rediscover my interests in STEM. I have met many inspiring people – from young people leveraging STEM to Nobel Prize-winning scientists. I have also experienced internalised sexism and misogyny, gender discrimination and bias, and the gender gap that exists in both academia and workforce.”
Sen also believes that it is important to ask the right questions to rise in the STEM journey. “I feel curiosity complements creativity, and creativity, in turn, complements innovation. It is all about fostering a sense of self-confidence, with enough room for self-improvement. This STEM mindset could help young girls and women to unlock their hidden capabilities, and simultaneously enable them to apply what they learn,” she adds.
STEM and gender biases
Interestingly, less than 20 percent of positions are occupied by women at some of the world’s best tech companies, including Apple, LinkedIn, Google, and Facebook among others. Tewari went on to highlight several other challenges that exist for women in tech, the most important being pay parity.
“Women have to deal with non-inclusive workplaces where there is also a lack of role models. But I believe the foundation needs to be built from school itself. For generations now, rote learning has been the traditional method of education without any focus on experiential learning. This is now being enabled through STEM which should be about knowledge and not gender. All in all, it is important to dispel stereotypes that exist within STEM,” she adds.
One is not born with STEM abilities, and must not be discriminated against because of gender, according to Sen. Success, she believes, can be achieved with sustained efforts.
NetApp Excellerator’s Agarwal feels that companies must lay the foundation right at the beginning, both in the case of internal and external employees.
“Women must be mentored and given equal access to opportunity. It is important to leverage your existing workforce to help those who are about to enter the workforce. At NetApp, we select a batch of college-going girls and ask them to come and experience the culture here, and how being part of a tech company changes their life. Even employees who volunteer to engage can notice the impact they can create in someone else’s life, and that trickles down to their families too,” she shares.
For change to take place, Agarwal believes that women in tech groups across organisations must not just focus on women-only sessions but also treat men as allies.
Pandemic boost in furthering STEM careers
SmartVizX’s Tewari attributes the increased opportunities for women to contribute to the workforce to the pandemic. Adding to the conversation, she says that despite a new set of challenges, it’s important to embrace the change because it’s for the better.
Sen, on the other hand, believes a career in STEM is not a “sprint” but a “marathon”. All in all, she believes that the pandemic has proved to be a silver lining for women, giving them extra time to re-evaluate and prioritise their interests.
Agarwal concluded the discussion with a different viewpoint. She believes that the pandemic has also brought to the fore a dark side, where women have had to work for extra hours.
“The workload of women has increased dramatically. In fact, when the lockdown was announced, women ended up devoting extra hours even when the house help wasn’t available,” she says.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)