Addressing the ‘roots’ of the STEM career.

Imagine you were invited to a friend’s 5-year old daughter’s birthday party. You just had 2 days to plan a gift. Close your eyes and quickly decide in the next 2 seconds what you would take for her? Seriously, try it!

If you are part of the majority, you would end up giving her a kitchen set, a barbie doll, or a ‘nice’ pink dress. Amazon also shows that most frequently purchased gifts are a combination of these few things, apart from watches or shoes.

Even though most of us would ignore this as we have probably read about such stereotypes many times before and have conveniently absolved ourselves as ‘exceptions’, hold on to this thought for a few more minutes. I had, in fact, written about female stereotypes 4 years ago as well and how they need to be broken. (Most popular ones included Boys don’t cry – and Run Like a girl) So it’s not a new topic.

While some of them are getting pleasantly redundant, there are still open items. Incidentally, one piece that I could not fathom, and is becoming more stereotypically prominent is the one in technology.

It’s the Teachers

Let’s assume that we are normally busy parents with mostly old-school upbringing – bound by irrationality. The ones to break this, then, should be the teachers, isn’t it? They are the rational experts after all, so maybe they would be conscious about it. Right?

In a 2015 study, Israeli researchers divided sixth-grade exams into two sets for grading: One batch was graded by the teachers and included students’ names, and the other contained no student names and was graded externally. In math, teachers graded boys higher, while external graders rated girls higher. Those low teacher grades then dissuaded girls for years to come.

Finally, what about the perception of the girls themselves? They should be conscious of such gaps. Even the note I had written earlier alluded to girls being given confidence and making them face their fears! Spare a minute more…

Let’s Draw a Scientist

Have you ever asked your child to draw a scientist? If you know someone, try this out with them. In several studies, when children were asked to draw a mathematician or scientist, girls were twice as likely to draw men as they were to draw women, while boys almost universally drew men, often in a lab coat. Mathematicians and scientists are socially awkward men who wear glasses—at least, according to children. (Ref-1)

The last few years have seen a smart transition in media (especially OTT) in bringing up issues that engulf our society around gender issues, racism, careers, etc. However, the talk of the town is technology – digital, AI, robotics, blockchain, etc – am sure if I add more, this note would get ranked highly on relevant keywords – and reach the fans of Naval Ravikant!

If you are a male Engineer in India, chances are that technology and Women together don’t come to you intuitively (figuratively speaking!) – that’s a stereotype that is our own issue – a few decades back, engineering colleges were largely full of boys, across both sides of the table. Maybe some of them continue the legacy even today.

What is STEM and why is it important?

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – this is the full form in case you are struggling with the acronym. Simply put, any jobs that require you to have an understanding of some / all of these disciplines are called STEM jobs. These are higher on technical competency and have a higher market worth in the job/startup market. So if you have to draw an inference, think of the kind of jobs with ‘better’ growth prospects. And those with STEM backgrounds have a higher opportunity to grow in this space.

SO – here is the problem – The global percentage of scientists, engineers, and technologists who are women is 28% whereas in India, it’s only 14%. So while this is a global concern, it’s a bigger one for India, ironically a global stalwart in Tech!

Lower participation entails a higher-income divide, widening the gap and strengthening the stereotype further that Women are not the ‘most’ suited for STEM jobs! Moreover, given our digitally elevated ecosystem, as our Digital Landscape evolves, 80% of jobs would require STEM. A bigger gap in participation entails a bigger gap in growth prospects.

So the problem will only worsen, if not taken care of quickly.

But why is there a gap?

In 2019, NASA’s all-women spacewalk got canceled because of the “insufficient supply of medium-sized spacesuits” and the agency made it clear that the “ideal astronaut body is still male“.

Olay presented this stereotype on the STEM gap – and how we need to ‘change the equation’ – Watch this beautiful 2-min narrative that summarizes the gapIt’s time to change the equation.

To solve it, we need to get more girls to join STEM. IBM has been at it for more than 4 years, bridging the gap between Industry and Academia and enabling girls to participate more through coding camps and other initiatives.

Mattel is trying to do this with their Barbies through Inspiring role models for girls. Their campaign Barbie Dolls – we all need them highlights some great inspiring women, some of them in STEM, for girls to get inspired and think of alternate careers ( however at the kind of pricing they have in India, even the parents would be inspired to get STEM Careers, to afford them! Or maybe settle with the ‘bride’ bestseller barbies )

Apart from adding to the pool, however, the other concern is, according to Prasha Dutra, retaining women in the pool! She says that there is a leaky bucket when women quit or accept lower grades. In the US / developed world, the problem is while 50% of women are there in undergrad courses in STEM, only 28% form the workforce – so there is a leaky bucket.

One of the reasons for them is to find relatable role models. So while coding camps and STEM barbies might help add to the pool,  you also need relatable Role Models to keep women in the STEM pool.
To move forward, women should connect with women who are just 2-3 steps ahead of you – don’t reach out for the Indira Nooyis directly. Also one should search for the struggles – sharing the same struggles help us with what is beyond that. As women get more senior, they should help out the youngsters to encourage them to continue building their professional lives.

In 2016, Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold the cabinet post of US secretary of state, said: “Just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Role Models don’t just need to be older women.

In textbooks, one study found that when female high school students viewed chemistry textbooks containing pictures of female scientists, they performed better than female students who viewed textbooks containing only pictures of males.

By the way, professionally speaking Digital Marketing and Analytics are one of the core areas we work in as a brand – incidentally, the majority of the team is being anchored by women. Based on personal experience, I don’t recall a single woman for whom it has been easy – but each of them continues to inspire as they fight their world’s worldviews and continue growing professionally.

And next time you are going to a 3-5-year old’s birthday party, don’t gift her a kitchen set – let’s get them some science experiments or puzzle books.

All this is not easy. But a conversation will at least make us think.

So while NASA came back 6 months later and succeeded in the first all-women spacewalk with Christina Koch and Jessica Meir,  personally, as I was concluding this note, my aunt came over to our place, and got one barbie dress set for my daughter and a car for my son! The change begins at home!

We need more Kalpana Chawlas, Shakuntala Devis, Annie Roys, Anna Manis, or Archana Sharmas – if you just know 2 of them as most of us, you know the problem!

Don’t Absolve, let’s solve it!

Image Link, Youngest Astronomer in the world Brazilian 8-year-old astronomer Nicole Oliveira, Inspirational Barbies

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