Indian women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs in India are likely dropping out due to gender discrimination, like their counterparts in developed countries, said Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy, a co-author of a recent report by the World Bank on advancing women’s participation in this domain.

“Global trends indicate low participation rates and high attrition rates for women in STEM jobs,” he said in an email interview.

While data are lacking on India, it is likely, he said, that some of the women dropping out of the workforce in India are in STEM jobs.

“This is despite the fact there is greater gender parity in STEM college enrolment in India than in upper-middle or high income countries,” Sai Krishna said. “Male domination of some such fields creates a chilly climate of STEM.”

Women are treated as less competent, feel slighted and isolated, are paid less and denied promotions. Even when they delay marriage and children, they do not get the same opportunities as men, he added.

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy

Addressing stereotypes and biases, right from early childhood, is critical, he said, given a “growing body of evidence” on how these hurt women’s progress in STEM.

Erasing gender bias in textbooks, giving students more exposure to female role models like women scientists, and reforming workplaces by, for example, anonymising candidate gender in applications and giving women access to mentoring opportunities, are among the interventions detailed in the World Bank report.

Sai Krishna is a financial sector analyst at CGAP, part of the World Bank Group, where he works on inclusive digital finance to enable improved livelihoods and access to basic services for the poor. Previously, he was a researcher at the Gender Group of the Bank, where he led research on gender gaps in STEM education and careers.

Excerpts from the interview:

What were the main findings from India in the World Bank report you co-authored on women in STEM?
One of the biggest takeaways was that we simply do not know much about gender gaps in STEM education and careers in developing countries, including India, because of a lack of data. This limits any country-specific observations or analysis about India.

Generally, both boys and girls enroll in and complete primary and secondary school at the same rates in India. While we do not know about sex differences in science or mathematics achievement, it is likely that girls are performing as well as, if not better than, boys.

At the college level, the overall enrollment into STEM fields is low, but there is parity between men and women. Among STEM specialisations, the completion (graduation) rate is higher for women in India than for men in natural science and mathematics, about the same for both sexes in information and communications technology, and lower for women in engineering.

However, a growing body of evidence shows stereotypes and implicit biases impacting women in STEM, all through education and into workplaces. These manifest themselves in educational materials, and are reflected in the attitudes and behaviour of parents, teachers, coworkers and managers.

While much of this evidence is from high income countries, it is highly likely that it applies to a country like India, where social norms reinforce conservative attitudes about women and emphasise traditional gender roles.

What happens to women in STEM jobs?
There is no systematic collection or analysis of data on women in STEM workplaces, but global trends indicate low participation rates and high attrition rates for women in STEM jobs. In India, there has been a secular decline in women’s participation in the labour market, and it is likely that some of it is from STEM jobs.

While this trend merits rigorous research, some of the drivers of this decline are that women take on more than their fair share of housework and child-care, face restrictions on their mobility because of safety concerns and sexual harrasment, encounter discrimination based on sex, including discriminatory labour laws, and experience a range of social norms and gender stereotpyes in the workplace that create hostile work environments.

There is a suite of interventions that has been found to work, from school level to the workplace. These include counteracting stereotypes by addressing gender bias in educational materials and learning environments, pedagogical improvements like participatory learning and extracurricular visits, encouraging role models in the form of female teachers, experts and peers, finally, identifying and counteracting implicit bias among peers and managers, giving women equal access to professional growth opportunities, peer support, professional networks and mentoring.

There is nothing in the evidence that suggests that these interventions cannot work in India.

When more women are enrolling in university courses than before, why are they less likely – as your report suggests – to enroll in STEM courses? Also, is the situation different for developed versus developing countries?
Comparing global averages, it is true that while there are more women enrolled in universities, they are less likely to enroll in STEM programmes. However, this gender gap in STEM tertiary enrollment widens with country income, and varies across STEM majors.

In India, which is a lower-middle income country, there is greater gender parity in STEM college enrollment than in upper-middle or high income countries. This is maintained across sub-fields, with the exception of engineering, as the table below shows:

And when we look at completion data, the Indian picture looks very different from that of several high-income countries. As I said earlier, except in the case of engineering, women are well-represented among Indian STEM graduates.

To put this in perspective, in the United States, only 6.5% of women who had completed tertiary education in 2018 had graduated in natural sciences and math, 1.5% of graduates in ICT and 2.5% in engineering. The numbers are far higher for India, in each case, as this table shows:

We do not know for sure why these gender gaps widen with country incomes and this is an area for future research. But one hypothesis is that in developing countries like India, STEM jobs are well-paying and have high social standing. Parents may be more inclined to enroll their children (both boys and girls) in STEM majors in the hope that it serves as a tool for economic progress and a good life.

Your report finds that girls do better than boys in maths and science on average, except in sub-Saharan Africa. Is this the case in India too? Why, or why not? What does this mean for policy and pedagogy?
The short answer is we don’t know.

India does not not participate in either Programme for International Student Assessment or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, two leading international standardised tests whose data we used in our report to investigate gender gaps in science and maths achievement. Further, while India has good gender disaggregated data on educational enrolment and completion, we do not have data on academic performance, especially in STEM subjects.

However, our research found that girls tend to do better in these tests in countries with low average levels of learning (i.e. where scores were below average), with the exception of African countries.

If that is true, we might expect girls to outperform boys in science and maths in India too. A good first step for policymakers would be to start collecting and reporting this data. We already do a good job with the ASER reports, and sex disaggregated STEM achievement data would be a great addition.

Can you elaborate on why women who pursue STEM courses are less likely to pursue careers in STEM?

For context, the overall labour force participation rate of women is low globally, and not specific to STEM. However, there are factors unique to STEM careers that specifically drive the low rates of women’s labour market participation and high rates of attrition.

The male domination of some STEM fields creates what we call a “chilly climate of STEM”. Women in male-dominated STEM fields like engineering, physics or computer science report higher rates of discrimination based on sex, compared to women in STEM fields with a more balanced mix of men and women, such as biology.

The wage gap is another significant reason. Women in STEM report much higher rates of being paid less than their male counterparts for the same job.

Women in STEM careers report being treated as less competent than their male co-workers, experience repeated small slights at work, receive less support from their team leaders and feel isolated in their workplaces. They also complain of being passed over for the most important assignments, of being turned down for jobs, being denied promotions, and allude to a general lack of mentoring and access to professional networks.

There has been some recent research that points to a “baby penalty”, but the evidence remains ambiguous. Even women who delay their marriage and parenthood are no more likely to pursue STEM careers compared to women who face the baby penalty. All women seem to be left behind in STEM careers, compared to men.

Let’s hear more about the “baby penalty” and why the evidence is ambiguous.

A “baby penalty” refers to the fact that women who decide to have children face systemic workplace barriers to pay, opportunities for career growth and perceptions of competence, compared to their female peers who choose not to have children.

Recent research from the US finds that parenthood affects career trajectories for all science professionals, but especially for women. Close to half (43%) of new mothers and 23% of new fathers left full-time STEM employment, transitioning into either part-time work, switching to non-STEM fields, or exiting the workforce entirely, after the birth of their first child.

Over the same study period, only 16% of men and 24% of women who did not have children left full time STEM jobs. This suggests that the responsibility of childcare drives more women than men out of STEM jobs, and in a country like India where the burden disproportionately falls on women, it is likely the effect will be pronounced.

But where this gets more interesting and ambiguous is when we square this with other research (also from the United States) which finds that women who planned to focus on their careers and delay marriage or parenthood were no more likely to enter STEM careers compared to their female peers who planned to marry young and have children.

This implies that even when women anticipate a “baby penalty” and plan to postpone family formation, they don’t increase their chances of working in STEM careers. Therefore, while “baby penalty” is a lived reality for many women in STEM jobs, it doesn’t fully explain their underrepresentation in STEM.

What are the key takeaways for policy makers in India? Is the situation changing – what do long-term trends look like?
There are at least three areas Indian policy-makers need to focus on. The first is, how can families, employers, markets and the government come together and provide integrated solutions for child care and the care of the elderly, so that women do not quit the labour market in the most formative years of their career.

The second is, when women do take a break, how can governments and employers support them in their journey back to work? And finally, how can employers move the needle on workplace discrimination and counteracting implicit biases among managers and coworkers?

They need to move from passive anti-discrimination on paper to actively fostering parity and equity in practice: equal pay, opportunities and a support system for women.

In terms of long-term trends, there is a secular decrease in women in the workforce in India, which is not STEM-specific, but plausibly, some of it is driven by women in STEM careers. The female labour force participation rate (for 15+ females) in India fell from 30% in 1990 to 21% in 2019, when educational enrollment and completion rates have increased for women. This is worrying, and has consequences for women, and our economy and the society of the future.

Many Asian countries, including China and India, have traditionally shown a strong preference for the male child. Does this show up in access to education, especially secondary and higher education, eventually impacting the presence of women in STEM?
India has a persistently skewed child sex ratio, to the disadvantage of girls, which slipped from 962 girls for every 1,000 boys in 1981, to 927 in 2001 and 914 in 2011, the latest year for which we have data. But this preference for the male child doesn’t seem to translate into a gender gap in access to schooling. When we look at gross enrolment rates in education across all levels, India appears to have achieved parity between boys and girls:

And when we compare these figures with 2011 data, we find there has been a general increase in educational access for all children, but especially for girls:

But access doesn’t necessarily translate into quality, and that’s where recent ASER data from 2019 and 2018 are helpful. For the first time, they have collected sex disaggregated data about enrollment and trajectories at both the pre-school and school levels, and the data shows interesting trends.

From ages four up to eight, at every age level, a higher proportion of girls than boys are enrolled in government schools, and a higher proportion of boys than girls are enrolled in private schools. This is also observed for age groups seven years to 10 years, 11 years to 14 years and 15 years to 16 years.

In a country like India where social norms and stereotypes lead parents to perceive private schools as “high quality”, and given that government schools are free, the data seems to suggest a parental preference to ration limited resources and invest in their son’s education compared to their daughter’s education.

So it may be the case that son bias shows up in such decisions, rather than in gross enrollment or completion rates.

This also has systemic consequences for women in STEM in India. If a greater proportion of girls in rural India pass through the government schooling system known for poor foundational literacy and numeracy, poor learning outcomes, less effective and motivated teachers, we are systematically disadvantaging Indian girls from success in a STEM college degree or STEM career.

The report also explores interventions that could help young girls envision a future in STEM and retain women already in the field. What would a country like India need to do for this to happen?
The evidence base of “what works” to keep girls and women in STEM is nascent and evolving. Studies are usually concentrated on high income countries, and can often rely on low sample size studies. Nonetheless, they give us valuable takeaways for both implementation and further research in low- and middle-income country contexts.

For a country like India, most of these solutions can be implemented fairly easily in families, schools and workplaces.

At very young ages, engaging girls in spatial play – things like puzzles, building blocks, working with maps, engaging in mental manipulation of images – and using spatial language such as directions, relative locations, dimensions, quantities, are known to cultivate greater interest in science among girls.

In primary and secondary education, interactive and participative learning (“doing” or “making” activities), extracurricular activities like museum visits, science clubs and coding camps, increase girls’ confidence and interest in science, and foster positive attitudes towards science.

Counteracting stereotypes about science and scientists is incredibly effective. This can involve tackling gender bias in textbooks – for example, having more female representation in images in science text-books – and redesigning the decor of science classrooms.

I mean having not just star wars, robots and solar system wall hangings, but something more connected to people/nature or other visuals that girls may relate to. It will also help to provide greater access to female role models, from having more female teachers for STEM subjects to inviting practising women scientists/ technologists into the classroom.

How can this be sustained as you go up the ladder?
In STEM tertiary education, the presence of more female faculty, a greater effort to mentor women, and enrolling them in specialised training programmes like boot camps will help to increase their sense of belonging to the world of STEM and help them transition to STEM careers.

At the workplace, there should be helpful general measures like providing and encouraging staff (especially male staff) to take parental leave, flexible work programmes, providing on-site or near-site childcare, and anti-discriminatory and anti-harassment laws. But, beyond that, best practices like anonymising candidate gender in job applications and restrictions on asking about salary history can equalise opportunities in hiring and make starting pay more equitable.

Peer support and feedback from male and female coworkers, mentoring by managers and especially senior female staff; opportunities to take on greater responsibilities and invitations from managers or other senior colleagues to become involved in high-profile projects have been shown to help women’s retention and career progression in STEM jobs. Encouraging non-stereotypical behavior through positive examples is also a promising approach.

For instance, instead of having workshops for male engineers to make them more empathetic to their female coworkers, put them to work in mixed gender teams, hire more female engineers and they will figure how to work together, on the job. Similarly, instead of telling parents or students that girls can become scientists, get them to actually meet and talk to female scientists, and understand their jobs.

The views expressed in this interview are personal, and do not necessarily represent those of the World Bank, CGAP, their staff, or the co-authors of the World Bank report on gender biases in STEM.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.