India produces the highest number of female graduates in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) every year. However, when it comes to employing women researchers, our country ranks 19th. According to the United Nations, Indian women make up only 14 per cent of the total 280,000 scientists, engineers and technologists employed in our research and development institutions.
Addressing this strange dichotomy, and the urgent need to plug the gender gap in STEM professions not just in India, but across the world, a panel of women achievers from India and Sweden came together on Monday, for SHE STEM: Women Leading The Way, an online event organised as a part of the Nobel Memorial week.
The panel, moderated by journalist and communication specialist, Rupali Mehra, discussed the need for inclusivity in sustainable sciences, the stigmas that women face in STEM professions, and shared their own experiences of finding a firm footing in a patriarchal domain. The discussion began with opening remarks by Ann Bernes, Sweden's Ambassador for Gender equality and Dr Renu Swarup, Secretary Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.
Underlining the need to create a more gender-inclusive space in STEM professions Bernes said that there is a need to get all the brightest minds involved in building a shared sustainable future and that includes women. "Gender equality is not just an objective in itself; it is also an essential means to achieve any objective at all. In the area of foreign policy, for example, we see clear links between gender equality and more secure, peaceful, and sustainable societies," Bernes added.
Dr Swarup also agreed with Bernes and emphasised the need to nurture women leadership. "It is our responsibility to have the right policies and enablers in place to help women move ahead in STEM," she said. Explaining that the government of India 'has been committed' to include more women in STEM professions, Dr Swarup added that the main objective of the government is not only to attract more women to science but also to sustain their careers.
"We do lose out a lot of girl students, as they move up in their career. So how do we build leadership? We keep talking about not having women in the board of companies and decision-making ranks. If that's the case, then we will have to build that leadership." she added.
Dr Sunita Narain, Director General at Centre for Science and Environment, who has worked on environmental issues for almost two decades, said that for her 'the gender issue is about attitude.'
"In my field, women face a lot of pushback. Women stand out, however, by taking the steps that men in our field are much more cautious to take," she explained. "There are some natural barriers in traditional scientific fields. It isn't easy to get your point of view across when there are some pugnacious men around. They don't want to listen to you, I can see that even in the meetings I go to..." she added.
During the discussion, Sanskriti Dawle, founder of Thinkerbell Labs, also pointed out that in India, education for women has been far more valued than a career. Therefore, despite so many STEM graduates, there aren’t as many women researchers, engineers, and scientists in our country.
"My peers and people from my generation care less about what is expected, or what is laid out for them, and I think that is the key to drive any change. The change will happen only when we stop waiting for society to permit us to do something. That is when we will see more participation in the workforce by women." explained Dawle.
Other panellists who participated in the discussion include Helena Samsioe, CEO and founder of Globhe, a company that uses drones to depict and predict natural disasters, and disease outbreaks around the world and Linnea Kornehed, CMO and co-founder of Einride. Einride is a transport company that specialises in electric and self-driving vehicles, thereby helping in reduction of CO2 emission. They discussed the challenges women entrepreneurs face while trying to secure funding in a country like Sweden, which is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. They talked about the subtleties of gender discrimination that they have faced in their professional careers.
Dr Beatrice Crona, Deputy Science Director, Stockholm Resilience Centre, pointed out several studies which show that there are noticeable differences between men and women, which is relevant for sustainable development. In a study which was based on eight years of Gallup data from the United States, it was found that men are less likely to believe in climate change or be well-informed about sustainability issues. In the corporate sector, for example, a study confirms that the likelihood of volunteering for climate change disclosures of firms increases with the percentage of women on the board.
"It is clear that gender differences will have a bearing on not only how cities develop and for who, but also on what policies are implemented in general. It is most likely to impact decisions on what to invest public money in or even private funds. No gender is to be blamed here, that is not my point. But it is to recognise gender differences and their interaction with powers and agencies," Crona explained.