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Break down the glass walls for women in STEM

Anu Raghunathan writes: Implicit biases, stereotypes keep women from fulfilling their potential.

Written by Anu Raghunathan |
Updated: September 19, 2021 7:52:09 am
There is gender segregation in high-level jobs with more men in strategic functions and women in support functions, writes Anu Raghunathan. (Representational)

Picture a Scientist, a documentary depicting the groundswell of women scientists working to further gender equity in STEM, is going viral. Its goal is to potentially act as a catalyst for reflection and discussion and foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in science. If there is inequity in science, a field that precludes bias and discrimination by design, we can only imagine the state of inequality in spaces where gender matters.

Gender equality is a moral, business and an intellectual imperative. It is undebatable and independent of profession or affiliation or gender. Gender equality benefits both men and women. Barriers for women must be knocked down at every level.

Feminism is the notion that each individual should be free to develop their own talents and not be held back by man-made barriers. Amongst the other hurdles in the way of women’s empowerment are implicit bias and gender stereotypes. Stereotypes related to gender brilliance or gender-based intrinsic aptitude or domestic responsibilities are instances of implicit bias, revealing automatic associations that people cannot or, at least, do not report holding when asked directly. Implicit biases generate inequity which remains unnoticed.

Due to deep-rooted biases, it is difficult for women to access many experiences and networks that are easily accessible to men. Personal barriers include notions of compromise and sacrifice that are ingrained in women — another reflection of culture and society. This feeds into how women present themselves and the opportunities they take advantage of and also shape the responsibilities they are entrusted with. External barriers relate to the subtle, and often unspoken, societal and cultural cues which reinforce how men and women “ought” to behave. Our socio-cultural constructs reflect absolute patriarchal entrenchment, causing even women to be sceptical about their abilities, to accept the roles set for them in the household and to trade empowerment for male protection.

There is gender segregation in high-level jobs with more men in strategic functions and women in support functions. These “glass walls” occur through a combination of unconscious biases in career and recruitment processes, benevolent sexism where well-intended men can inadvertently “kill careers with kindness”, and socialised masculine behaviours which dissuade women from certain occupational choices. It is essential to create awareness of inherent injustice and biases. There has been a very gradual change in the representation and the status of women globally. Incremental changes, although realistic and necessary, are intangible and go partially unnoticed. The rate of change definitely needs to increase by several orders of magnitude.

The problem in India in STEM is quite different from the problem in the West in that many girls in India study STEM subjects but the number of women who stay on and pursue higher degrees and then go on to higher positions are fewer. In such cases of gender disparity, what matter are the decisions of marriage and childbearing, and the fact that a woman’s well-being and dignity are not necessarily in her hands. Gender sensitisation involves being cognisant of biological differences, recognising the needs of either sex and creating safe spaces without gender bias.

The issue of women’s empowerment in India contains a strange paradox. There are women in powerful positions in many fields but, at the same time, several women have minimal rights. In the capital, New Delhi, and in the political realm, there have been many powerful women. However, the high rate of crimes against women, including murder, rape, and female infanticide, in the nation’s capital shows that political power and intellectual presence are not transferred. Untangling this paradox and fostering equality requires overcoming social, economic and cultural barriers, and implicit biases at the grassroots.

There is thus a need for a major upheaval in mindsets about gender in India, a social and cultural change in what is perceived as right and wrong for women. Policies that help women advance in science and society globally are needed. The world cannot afford to miss out on what women have to offer.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 18, 2021 under the title ‘Breaking the glass walls’. The writer is senior principal scientist in the biological engineering unit of the chemical engineering and process development division, CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory, Pune.

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