The Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using a three-pronged approach towards not only building an equitable workforce but also towards the development of women in the fields of STEM, Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani has said.
Irani, who was speaking at The Economic Times-Femina Women in Tech Conference, explained that though India is known for its prowess in the engineering and the STEM domain, the country is well behind when it comes to building an equitable workforce in the technology domain.
Quoting a Niti Aayog report from a study conducted during 2016-17, Irani said that 47% of women refused promotions in the area of STEM and technology due to family commitments. She highlighted another global report that showcases that nearly 81% of women in STEM/technology domain faced bias in evaluation processes. She also added that only 15% of teachers in the STEM faculties are women.
Explaining further, the minister said that the main piece of the puzzle shows itself when someone analyses or takes a critical look at how women are joining the workforce and how the country can look at building more capacity.
She added that there was a general bias against women right from being born and the bias continues to broaden as the girl child grows up. Explaining further and quoting the Prime Minister, she said that families play a critical role in pushing a girl child towards STEM-oriented careers.
“The Prime Minister has been vocal about motivating girl children towards STEM, right from a young age starting with toys. He has underlined the problem that young boys are three times more likely to get a STEM-based toy than girls. This means you are pushing the girl child towards more care-giving roles,” Irani said.
Speaking further against the prevalent bias against women, she also said that families are more likely to spend money on training boys to take competitive exams rather than a girl child who might have scored better than most boys in her neighbourhood or region.
“Families still associate engineering, AI, cloud and other deep-tech careers with masculinity. To see a girl extremely successful in the field of STEM, families to need to begin their support early on,” she said.
The minister also spoke about several initiatives that the government had undertaken to ensure that more women join the workforce. She said that the government understands the need of affordable devices for more households to push their children towards STEM and that’s why it has been trying to bring down cost of electronic devices such as laptops and smartphones via the MSIPS scheme that incentives companies manufacturing devices locally in the country.
Mentioning the other two prongs of the government’s strategy, Irani said that there were talks of a gender-inclusion fund being set up and the government was looking at promoting more women in leadership and faculty roles across universities to inspire more women to join any domain under STEM.
The minister also spoke about other initiatives the government had undertaken and highlighted the Diksha programme, which is a school curriculum-based project. She said that the curriculum under the project, which was available in 30 languages, saw 18.2 billion hits during the last year and saw 250 crore sessions being conducted.
Irani also highlighted that Indian society was seeing community participation in an enhanced manner in recent times. She gave the example of Petroleoum University which had agreed to help kids in government schools with no devices. “We now have over 1,500 students under the university’s mentorship and they are really doing well,” she said, adding that the government was also helping to conduct online classes in villages, post-school, in partnership with local representatives and educational institutions.
Interestingly, the minister also noted that the pandemic played a positive role when it comes to how women are viewed in the workforce. “Men had to take up their fair share of the household chores including probably taking care of a baby as WFH was no longer just a female concept and this has greatly helped tip the scales of perception,” she said.