The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) field had largely been male-dominated until a couple of decades ago, but while the situation is improving for women, their percentage in it is still lesser than desired.
There are several causes and challenges for this, says Deepa Ganapathy, Vice President, Quess IT Staffing.
These include the effect of patriarchy, with a few years ago, there being fewer women getting technology degrees, which, in turn, led to fewer women in tech fields, the paucity of role models, with the most striking example of the original woman in tech, Ada Lovelace, who wrote the world’s first complex computer program in 1843, being "sadly written out of history”, and then the lack of lucrative long-term career opportunities, she says.
Then, as women take up the responsibility of running the household, not many jobs offer flexibility in timing, location etc, causing many talented, young, and capable women making a choice to opt out of having a career, and several stages of the "leaky pipeline", including relocation owing to marriage, maternity breaks, lack of family support, family responsibilities, Ganapathy adds.
Women industry leaders feel overcoming these challenges and improving women’s representation in STEM will require a concerted effort by employers, educational institutions, policymakers, and society at large to create an environment that is truly welcoming of and empowering for women in the field as well as the workplace.
“One of the key variables to address are the gender stereotypes imposed from an early age, which can result in fewer women applying for jobs in STEM. To ensure women’s success in Science and Technology, an ecosystem needs to be developed from the ground up that fosters a culture of gender neutrality and a mindset shift.
"Additionally, working towards creating an inclusive and equitable environment that encourages women participation in the STEM workforce, promoting equal pay for equal work will also play a key role in bringing about that shift,” says Vani Manja, Managing Director at research-driven pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim India.
Shilpa Sinha Harsh, Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Communications, CSR and D&I, at Hinduja Global Solutions (HGS), says one of the most common challenges that women in STEM careers face is unconscious bias.
“To curb these challenges, several corporates are taking various measures and making policies which empower women in STEM careers. At HGS, we have undertaken multiple initiatives to combat the biases that persist with the women workforce. Along with flexible working arrangements, maternity benefits, childcare arrangement policy, we also run sensitisation drives that are aimed at instilling the importance of an inclusive workplace and focus on various inherent biases that we hold against women and the different ways to mitigate them,” she adds.
Measures needed to facilitate ease of work for women and re-entry opportunities
The pandemic has disproportionately affected women as it upended their work-life balance, given most of the onus of managing full-time work alongside extra caregiving responsibilities fell on them when offices and schools closed.
This has had a negative impact on women in terms of career advancements, pay scale, mental health, morale and wellbeing,
“In a challenging period like this, the importance of providing women employees with a conducive professional environment is of paramount importance. Organisations which have adapted to these changes and focused on providing them with social and workplace opportunities have witnessed lower attrition, higher productivity, and higher engagement,” says Manja.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there will be 13 million fewer women in employment in 2021 compared to 2019, while men’s employment will have recovered to 2019 levels.
“This reinforces the need to put in place policies that help employees balance personal and professional priorities, for example, flexible work hours, remote working options, access to medical care, childcare allowances. Ultimately, the focus should be on nurturing an ecosystem that enables ease of work for women in a holistic manner,” says Manja.
In the long-term, work policies should also encourage the important role of fathers in parenting, which would help counter some of the social stereotypes and expectations that fall largely on working fathers.
“For instance, many Scandinavian nations such as Finland and Norway offer generous and equal child-care leaves to both fathers and mothers. Norway, for example, offers both parents 46 weeks of fully paid leave and 56 weeks at 80% of their salaries. Such policies greatly encourage equal effort towards childcare, by not putting the onus on women alone,” she adds.
Women returning to work often find it challenging to reintegrate effectively due to a combination of reasons, including confidence loss, family and societal expectations with the work-home balancing act, among others.
For this, Manja suggests that re-entry of women into the workforce can be greatly facilitated by employers by creating a welcoming and supportive environment.
“Example measures include designing workspace and environment that caters to the need of new mothers, offering upskilling and training programs that support career advancement, establishing mentoring and sponsorship programs, which would together help women re-enter the work force with confidence and reassurance, and advance further in their professional journey,” she adds.
“According to a report by the 'Indian Women Network', almost 91% of women employees in India who take a break following childbirth want to come back to work. However, the women who return to the workforce today stands at 34% and this number is significantly lower at senior levels. Clearly, there is work to be done around helping new mothers re-enter the workforce,” says Ganapathy.
However, she says, there is good news as organisations are driving a diversity hiring mandate by providing provisions such as an in-house creche offering support for young mothers to return to work. A Career Restart Programme has been introduced which encourages women to pursue their career after a break, while options of work from home, flexi work hours and half day half pay among others will further provide incentives to women to re-start their career.
Harsh says their organisation has partnered with NASSCOM FutureSkills to design a skilling program dedicated towards educating women in the fields of AI, Data Analytics and Data Science among others and inspiring more women to monetise opportunities in the field. “We also have Aspire, a programme designed for mid-level women employees with the intent to develop a pool of future ready high potential women leaders. It aims to raise aspiration levels of our women leaders and helps them revisit their personal contexts, build confidence and overcome inhibitions built through social conditioning,” she notes.
Evolving roles of women in STEM
Today, India has a pool of notable talented women in STEM, who have achieved tremendous success in their respective fields. Many women are decisively breaking the glass ceiling and defying traditional gender biases, in STEM as well as other arenas, across public and private sectors.
“For example, healthcare and pharma has increasing representation of women in leadership roles; in the public sector, major programs of Indian Space Research Organisation feature several women in senior roles. These examples serve as strong indicators of how women are excelling in roles that go beyond traditionally common domains like HR and teaching,” says Manja.
Roles in STEM particularly promising for women
Industry leaders say there are plenty of opportunities for women in the STEM industry today.
“There is a significant increase in demand for women candidates in products, services, ecommerce, BFSI, consulting, telecom, and manufacturing and retail Industry. Disruptive technologies - cloud computing to AI, ML, IOT, 3D printing, blockchain, business analyst, web designers, cloud network Architect, blockchain engineer, ITO solutions architect, AI engineer, data science analyst, cyber security analysts are most sought after,” says Ganapathy.
As per Quess data, women participation is observed to be higher in technology roles such as business analytics (41%), RPA (40%), ERP (40%), and UI/UX Development (38%). “This can be attributed to the fact that now several organisations are actively focusing and prioritising their diversity equity and inclusion programmes to sustain women in the tech workforce,” she adds.
“Technical disciplines such as medicine, engineering, technology, research, and development offer promising career opportunities for women. In the pharmaceutical industry specifically, there is a dire need for talent across streams, thus opening up roles for women in research and development, manufacturing, marketing and sales, as well as other support functions such as regulatory affairs and compliance. Moreover, post the onset of the pandemic, roles such as sales representatives – which were traditionally on field with higher male representation – have also now become fully virtual, offering a promising opportunity for women to join the workforce,” adds Manja.
She, however, notes while there are a number of exciting opportunities and roles across fields in science, however, the representation of women in such roles remains low.
“While there is a notable number of female candidates in entry-level and even managerial positions in STEM-related occupations, their numbers tend to decline as we climb up the hierarchy of roles. The relative lack of female candidates in C-level positions is a matter that must be addressed by industries. Organisations must adopt strategies to attract, retain and develop female talent to harness their inherent capabilities.
"Diversity and Inclusion must not just remain a buzzword, but a serious business priority,” she adds.