When the NASA Rover Perseverance landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, the face of the landing was Indian engineer Dr. Swati Mohan. Along with the accolades, part of the spotlight fell on NASA’s noteworthy efforts to build gender diversity and inclusion in science. After all, there is something poetic about gender equality steering Perseverance.
But the very fact that the event had such symbolic value for women indicates the clear and urgent need to combat underrepresentation across science, technology, engineering and maths - collectively known as STEM- industries, in India and globally, particularly at advanced career levels.
The importance of diversity
Diversity is a prerequisite for scientific excellence and advancement. Gender diversity can translate into unique, divergent insights that propel innovation benefitting a larger audience. Sometimes, human biases tend to get mirrored in algorithms and equal representation in sampling data could ensure they are reflective of the diverse population, thus translating into accuracy across facial recognition software and scientific technologies.
According to a Forbes report, nearly 85 per cent of large global enterprises believe that diversity is a key driver of innovation. But diversity alone, in the absence of an inclusive workforce, will not reap these benefits. Inclusion is paramount to sustaining diversity. Inclusive and diverse workforces foster creativity, novel idea generation and better problem-solving skills, thus giving organizations a competitive advantage.
However, there are obstacles that stand in the way of equitable gender representation or parity in science. STEM has been predominantly male-driven, and gender bias continues to be pervasive. Stereotypical mindsets and stigma act as deterrents. In particular, the societal perception of women as the primary caregiver places the onus of a dual burden at work and home on women, and this has been exacerbated in recent times. A lack of childcare infrastructure across industries and inadequate support for women returning to the workforce after a break only reinforces this inequality.
Another trend is that women tend to market and promote themselves much lesser as compared to men at the workplace. There is also the inclination to not highlight their achievements and successes. This is reiterated in an internal report by Hewlett Packard which showed that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. This prevents women from advancing to more senior roles. Addressal of these challenges can bridge the gender gap and support the retention of women in science.
Changing the Status Quo
Promoting gender diversity from an early stage of education can build a strong foundation for scientific learning amongst children, thus piquing their interest and motivating them to pursue scientific endeavors. As part of Bayer’s commitment to educate and inspire the next generation of innovators, we have undertaken various projects to boost science education and improve employment prospects for young girls and boys. Over 5000 young and bright minds have had the opportunity to learn about Plant Breeding, Plant Biotechnology and Digital Agriculture at our Baylab in Bangalore. We also offer vocational training program under the Bayer RVJ School of Agriculture.
Government bodies, policies and institutions can play a central role in enabling equitable representation and gender equality across the workforce. For instance, the draft of the Indian Government’s new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) 2020 addresses gender-based inequity and places a much-needed emphasis on inclusion and empowerment of women in STEM. It mandates at least 30 per cent representation of women in all decision-making bodies as well as equitable and effective participation in science and innovation.
Organizations also have an important and complementary role to play, by contributing to the implementation of policies established by the government. Companies can cater to the unique needs of women through policies such as flexi-hours and extended gender-neutral parental leave. They can also support working mothers through the provision of crèches and childcare facilities, as well as by extending encouragement and assistance for women returning from a career break.
Such policies when paired with growth, mentoring and development opportunities can accelerate women’s careers. For example, Bayer’s platform titled GROW WISE or ‘Growing Opportunities and Representation for Women | Women in Science Exchange,’ encourages women to engage in meaningful dialogue, shared learning and to support each other’s development along their professional journeys. Initiatives like these can help women hone new and existing skills critical to science.
Ensuring equitable gender representation is also important, particularly in leadership roles in the organization. A Women in Business survey found that India ranked 3rd lowest in having women-led organizations, highlighting the palpable need for companies to address this gender imbalance. Not only can women leaders ensure the diversification of thought and perspectives that are critical to innovation and scientific progress, but they can also act as role models to empower other women in the field. Moreover, diversity of workforces and in leadership also stands out as a key differentiator in attracting top talent.
In additional to policies, culture plays a critical role in promoting an inclusive environment at the workplace. Trainings on gender specific sensitization, unconscious bias and barriers to inclusion can help inculcate a mindset change. Furthermore, support structures and transparent dialogue are also key to facilitating change. In this way, women are able to bring the challenges they face to the forefront, voice their concerns and discuss forward-looking measures to better support them. Such discussions can elicit actionable insights, which, when paired with personal support structures, can empower women to forge connections, grow and advance in their careers.
The Way Forward
As quoted by Padma Shri recipient, eminent Indian physicist and academic, Professor Rohini Godbole, “We need to develop a mindset that science is important to women just as women are important to science.” Gender diversity is no longer an option, and it has in fact become quite critical for business and the future of science. The current landscape is incrementally shifting in the right direction, with more inclusive spaces and structures being established to support women. Going forward, we must, at an institutional and societal level, continue to work towards implementing real and lasting change to empower women in science.