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Women in STEM: Breaking barriers

On the occasion of the 73rd year of independence for India, cine goers were in for a treat as they watched Mission Mangal. This is a film that is inspired by the lives of eight scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who shot into fame as “Rocket Women” in 2014. These ladies played a pivotal role in the success of Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan), India’s first interplanetary expedition.

The iconic image of scientists in silk saris with flowers in their hair celebrating the launch of Mangalyaan in 2014, broke many stereotypes and promises to be etched in our memories for a very long time. While most Indians are used to the idea of lady doctors, lawyers and media personalities, science, technology engineering and mathematics or STEM has typically been a male bastion.

Breaking glass ceilings

In recent years though, women have been making their presence felt in STEM. 34% of India’s IT-BPM (Information Technology- Business Process Management) industry that employs 3.97 million people, now comprises women. This is a significant increase from 28% in 2016.

Do these statistics then prove that gender parity is a reality in STEM? Far from it really, as many a myth continues to hamper the true potential and progress of women in STEM. Societal stereotypes are till date responsible for lowering the aspiration of girls who wish to pursue a career in STEM. Let us take a closer look at some of these myths that are causing barriers.

Myth: Computer science does not match a woman’s personality

Computers are perceived as a male domain. It ranks along with machinery, electronics and have a masculine connotation. Even though girls have better problem-solving abilities from a very young age, gender bias begins at the school level itself. Pioneering women in technology such as Ada Lovelace (1815-52 UK) and Edith Clarke (1883-1959 USA) are barely mentioned.

Ada Lovelace is credited as the world’s first programmer. She came up with a method for a device to repeat a series of instructions, effectively inventing looping. Looping is an integral part of computer programming today. Edith Clarke is often referred to as a human computer. She became the first woman to complete a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She also invented a device called the Clarke calculator. It enabled engineers to solve equations 10 times faster than traditional methods.

Keeping in mind the example of these luminaries in mind, women of today who are subject matter experts must realise that there is ample room for them in the field of STEM. They should learn from role models around them and strive to become experts in their field. That said, it is not only important become a subject matter expert, but to overcome gender stereotypes to talk yourself up and present yourself as an irreplaceable asset. Further, learning the art of negotiation is the backbone of selling your ideas and closing deals.

Myth: The tech environment does not work for women

In recent years, gender sensitive polices are being implemented across workplaces to create an inclusive culture. With more women in STEM, HR policies on anti-harassment, flexible hours and parental leaves have been prioritised. Today, it is conventional wisdom, that firms that prioritise gender parity outperform their peers.

The need today for women in STEM is to speak up and speak out on issues such as equal pay that begins to pressure companies to bring in more women to perform jobs at various levels. Also, as women, networking and finding a mentor at the earlier stage of career will help you pursue success.

Myth: Women do not like taking risk

Evolutionary theory suggests that risk taking is essentially a masculine trait while women are risk averse. In reality however, a mountain of research proves time and again that women and men simply perceive risk differently. While men rely more on instinct, women rely on facts and figures, analyse and evaluate all risks before deciding. That, in fact, may be a better approach and yield greater chances of success in the workplace. Hence, women make better and more determined decision makers. Thus, they have a greater desire to build firm foundations that will endure.

To sum it up, while it is fact that women remain underrepresented across the STEM spectrum, here is quick summation of what women aspiring for a career in STEM can do:

Do not be afraid to be uncomfortable with new things

It is perfectly fine to be uncomfortable about trying the things you have never done before, with regards to work. In case of trouble, feel free to reach out to seniors or experts.

Leave gender stereotypes behind

If you have your heart set in STEM and know that you have a knack for it, do not let gender biases influence your decisions. Push past gender stereotypes to master the skills you wish to hone.

Network your way to success

There is no need to be a lone wolf, even if you are outnumbered on that basis of your gender. Foster meaningful relationships with colleagues and seniors and build a network. It is the meaningful relationships you establish that will take you a long way ahead.

By: Natasha Jethanandani, CTO at Kaleidofin

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