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Accelerate STEMM education to elevate women in leadership roles

As we mark the International Women’s Day, it is an opportunity once again to highlight the need to drive inclusive leadership. There is a greater emphasis now on underscoring the value that women in leadership roles bring, and sharpening the efforts towards ‘achieving an equal future’, more so in the new context and reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But first, let us take a step back: For years now, women in leadership roles have largely been studied from two main perspectives. The first is about their representation in government and at policy and decision-making positions. We have seen this increase over the years and have also seen how the strength this directive has brought to decision making.

The second is about women in corporate roles, which is significantly more documented and discussed. According to recent reports, India ranks higher than many others in the region in the number of women in both executive or non-executive roles. Women in India account for 5 per cent of all executive chairs and 10 per cent of non-executive chairs, compared to the Asian average of 2.6 per cent and 5 per cent respectively, according to the Egon Zehnder Global Diversity Report 2020.

There is a third important area that is unfortunately often overlooked: women in leadership positions in the science and technology space. While we have a list of accomplished women scientists, who have proven their distinction in areas ranging from space to aviation and healthcare to pharma, the fact remains that there is a need to scale up the efforts for women leading science and technology initiatives at the grassroots level. 

The pandemic has further underlined the need to accelerate leadership roles for women, given the exemplary results women showed being at the frontline as health care workers, caregivers, innovators, and community organisers, in addition to exceptional leadership roles in the decision-making positions. The pandemic has also reinforced the importance of building scientific temperament and building a scientific culture, more so in women.

But why the need for an increased focus on women? The Department of Science & Technology (DST) data shows that women comprised about one-fourth of the pass-out students in STEMM subjects in engineering and only 10% of IIT students. Then again, women only form 14 per cent of the total 280,000 scientists, technologists and engineers in research development institutions in the country, according to a UN report

Despite the increase in this number, there is another side to the story: more women and girls are studying science, but the proportion in which they are entering the workspace does not match up. This brings our focus on building a strong foundation. If we strengthen the base and build quality leadership, we will see this translated into higher number at leadership level.

The need, therefore, is to drive a transformational change, driven by a comprehensive and integrated approach – starting with the need to inculcate women leadership training simultaneous with their STEMM education. We need to create and nurture a new generation of young women scientists in the country who are audacious in their goals to thrive in leadership positions, drive cutting edge research and, also inspire more young people to follow suit – because the rewards of an inclusive leadership to communities, societies, and the nation, are enormous. Women in leadership roles bring an intuitive understanding of the key challenges that the community faces, with a greater nuance and depth of the on-ground and practical aspects of these challenges, and hence also the ability to help identify contextually relevant solutions. This is particularly important for a country as vast and diverse as India, where grassroots level changes are mission-critical. As we create more role models, from our neighbourhoods, we create a ripple effect of positive change. 

While there are systems in place to encourage women to take up leadership posts in public office and private sector entities, a concerted framework for women to be active partners in science and technology leadership will also set a roadmap for our nation’s progress. This calls for the participation of all stakeholders and must not just be considered as a governmental task. There is an urgent need to foster conversations around communities – not just in cities but across our villages – to underpin the need for science education and leadership building. 

The key to success is three-pronged: The first is to further build on the nation’s success in providing access to science education for our girls. The second is to empower them financially and socially – including systemic support to overcome social barriers and taboos, in relation to sustained and long-term careers for women in science. The third, is to build a compelling ecosystem that encourages women scientists and girl children to constantly upskill themselves, build their leadership skills, and evolve as leaders in driving scientific innovation and progress. 

We have achieved good progress through national initiatives such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. DST’s programmes – Vigyan Jyoti, to promote STEM learning among girls, and Engage with Science program that aims to build interest and connect high school students to higher education institutions – have both made considerable headway. Bio-CARE Biotechnology Career Advancement & Re-orientation Programme (BioCARe) was launched by Department of Biotechnology (DBT) for women scientists for their career development; who are employed and un-employed or are desirous of coming back after a break to get into the mainstream.

While there is governmental and institutional support for encouraging women leaders in science, the foremost task today is to continuously build dialogue and awareness on the need for girls to embrace STEMM education with a clear vision to lead the country into the next era of scientific evolution. We could use this International Women’s Day to make that pledge. 

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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