Article: Addressing unconscious bias and systemic challenges hindering women in STEM

Training & Development

Addressing unconscious bias and systemic challenges hindering women in STEM

India leads in female STEM enrollment, yet post-education, women encounter leadership underrepresentation due to systemic barriers and unconscious biases. Remedies involve workplace reforms and empowering women's voices in STEM.
Addressing unconscious bias and systemic challenges hindering women in STEM

India boasts the world's highest number of STEM graduates, with an impressive enrollment of women in STEM fields.  Nearly threefold as many Indian women (29%) enrol in STEM-allied fields for their tertiary education as compared to the US (10.5%).  Furthermore, except for engineering, enrollment in STEM by Indian women is nearly equal to that of men.  This means India has the highest number of women trained in STEM in the world.

Several programs have been developed to encourage women at various stages in their STEM careers. The All India Council for Technical Education has two schemes to enhance women’s employability, and NGOs like Vigyan Shaala International focus on training women in STEM for the labour market. The Science and Engineering Research Board has provided focused funding to encourage women researchers. Further, several policies, including the Science Technology and Innovation Policy of 2013, the Women in Science and Engineering (KIRAN), the GATI Charter, and the CURIE programme are designed to encourage women to participate in the STEM workforce.

Despite these programs, the situation changes drastically when Indian women finish their education. A recent government report found that only 18.6% of researchers in R&D are women, and LinkedIn data suggests that women hold only 14% of leadership roles in STEM-allied occupations. Some of the reasons behind this lacuna are well-known. Familial responsibilities, childcare, systemic barriers, sexual harassment, wage gaps, and persistent cultural biases continue to pull women out of the workforce across sectors. Workplace education, flexible work arrangements, part-time opportunities, remote work, on-site childcare, and parental leave for both parents have been implemented in several workplaces to combat these issues.

Also read: Upskilling: The mantra for women to thrive in the tech industry

However, this underrepresentation isn't a lack of talent, but a consequence of systemic challenges that create a leaky pipeline. Unequal distribution of childcare responsibilities disproportionately burdens women, forcing them into part-time work or career breaks.  Furthermore, persistent wage gaps and limited access to flexible work arrangements in STEM make balancing work and personal lives difficult.  These challenges essentially push women to choose between career advancement and personal needs.

There also remains an insidious and pervasive series of biases that are difficult to tackle because of their very nature.  Known as implicit or unconscious bias, these factors restrict women from employment and promotion but are largely unknown to both the victims and the perpetrators.  Often ingrained during childhood, society reinforces the notion that women are less suited for STEM occupations, either due to perceived incompetence, mismatched societal roles, or inappropriateness of their gender.  Such biases subtly affect decision-making regarding hiring, collaboration, promotion, and all aspects of workplace interpersonal relationships. The persistent lack of women leaders subtly reinforces the validity of these false ideas.

Unconscious biases are very difficult to combat directly because they are, by their very nature, unintentional.  Most surprisingly, this type of bias afflicts both men and women.  For example, during a recent International Women’s Day celebration, I was part of a panel session for women leaders.  Most panel members denied that they had faced bias in their careers. After denying this bias, one leader noted that when speaking with her clients, she has her male subordinate speak on her behalf because “for some reason, the [male] clients won’t speak with me.” I have heard many similar statements from women, unaware that these minor inconveniences can compound into career-sabotaging problems.

Combatting unconscious bias requires conscious action. Letters of recommendation for women can be littered with microbiases, and studies have shown that when presented with an identical CV, individuals of both genders will more likely select the CV with a male candidate's name than the female one.  Faculty and decision-makers from all STEM fields should be educated to avoid such practices with targeted training and anonymized applications. Public “manels” (male-only panels) are now well-known and often called out on social media. With online repositories such as 500 Women Scientists and the Life of Science, there is no excuse for not inviting women to career-advancing talks, panel sessions, and other public events. Nevertheless, “invisible manels” remain for hiring, promotion, and intradepartmental discussions. Women must be included in all decision-making bodies in an organization. Organizations should push past outdated hierarchical notions and allow men and women at multiple career stages to participate in hiring and promotion decisions. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, women should tell each other’s stories.  Hearing from peers and promoting dialogue between women in STEM is one of the most important ways to combat unconscious bias. I recently had the privilege of interviewing several cis and trans women from many backgrounds about their experiences as women in STEM for the AI-SHU platform – a virtual mentor by Olay that offers guidance and information to aspiring young girls seeking to enter the world of STEM.  While some of the biases they experienced were similar, each woman's circumstances and conditions were unique.  These conversations taught me that we cannot address gender bias in STEM solely with policies and protocols. Hearing from women who faced similar issues and come from similar backgrounds is essential to promote understanding, mentorship, and, most of all, hope. The more we make unconscious bias conscious, the faster we can see India profit from the as-yet underutilised societal wealth that women in STEM provide.

Read full story

Topics: Training & Development, Skilling, #InternationalWomensDay

Did you find this story helpful?



How do you envision AI transforming your work?