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The gender gap: Only 16% of Indian STEM faculty members are women

A new study highlights the strikingly low numbers of women in Indian STEM institutes as well as conferences and panel discussions

Women make up only about 16% of Indian STEM faculty members in Indian universities and institutions, new study finds.
Women make up only about 16% of Indian STEM faculty members in Indian universities and institutions, new study finds.

Women make up only about 16% of Indian STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) faculty members in Indian universities and institutions, a new study, published in preprint repository bioRxiv, has revealed. This highlights the fact that while equity in Indian academia is a popular discussion topic, exclusion is still the norm on the ground. 

The  study, Women’s representation in Indian academia and conferences, published by scientists Shruti Muralidhar and Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan, highlights the dearth of women researchers in Indian academia. “Not only are they [women] under-represented, but they are also under-highlighted, under-mentored and overlooked for awards, grants and other career-advancing steps,” they write in the paper. 

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The authors are also co-founders of BiasWatchIndia (BWI), an online platform that was started in June 2020 to document inequities in Indian science conferences, talks, and meetings.

The findings aren’t surprising, independent scientist Muralidhar tells Lounge. “We have been part of academia for long enough to know the reality. But it’s important to know the numbers. When we call out Indian academia for the lack of women in panel discussions or conferences, a pushback we often get is, ‘There aren’t any women in the field.’ So, we have been focusing on debunking that excuse through data that shows otherwise,” she says. 

Long-held prejudices within STEM were also apparent in the findings. Biology, which is traditionally considered ‘soft science’ (read: socially acceptable for women) had the highest proportion of women faculty members (22.5%) and engineering had the lowest at 8.3%. 

“This is not specific to India, it is a worldwide thing. Life Sciences and fields allied to it are always thought of as a softer science. And softer science refers to them being more accessible to people who identify as women. In contrast, physics and maths and engineering are considered ‘hard science’, and thus, remain out of reach for women,” explains Muralidhar. 

Even in the top eight STEM institutes ranked by the National Institutional Research Framework (NIRF), including IITs and IISc in 2022, women faculty members were just 10%.

Another not-so-surprising but important finding was that almost half of the women faculty in the surveyed institutions and colleges were in their early-career phase and only about 26% were in senior-career roles, highlighting the prominence of a leaky pipeline. The term, ‘leaky pipeline’ refers to the systematic issue of progressive reduction in the number of women at each step up the professional ladder. 

From microaggressions to harassment, there is a range of systematically discriminatory ways of exclusion that have been practised over the years to keep women’s numbers low in Indian academia. This is a worldwide phenomenon.

A recent study, published in Science Advances, analysed employment records of more than 2,45,270 people at US institutions to show that women feel driven out by toxic workplace culture more often than by lack of work-life balance. There is also an unequal impact of parenthood on women in academia, from exclusion to unshakeable stigma that affects their career growth.

“In the United States, it's harder to get girls into STEM at the high school level, but India doesn't have that problem. Here, it’s harder to retain women faculty because they simply don't have the support or the environment that they need to grow. They're doing their job, going back home, and raising a family; the gender inequalities are very apparent,” says Muralidhar. 

For a long time, there has been an attempt to invisiblize women in STEM and use the painstakingly low numbers as a way to justify their absence from conferences, talks, and panel discussions. Since its launch, BWI, Muralidhar and Ananthanarayanan have been calling our Indian STEM conferences and talks on X (previously Twitter) for the absence of women participants. 

Comparing the first year of BWI with the second and third years showed that publicly calling out and tagging the institutions online seems to have had a positive effect. Between June 2020 to August 2021 (phase 1), 46% of conferences, talks, and panel discussions had zero women participants and between August 2021 to March 2023 (phase 2), the number had reduced to 25%. 

However, the proportion of women speakers in all the surveyed years has been significantly low. For instance, in phase 1, 80% of the conferences in mathematics featured no women speakers, and 39% of all conferences conducted in this period had no women speakers. Similarly, in phase 2, 26% of all conferences in this period had no women speakers.

“Calling out organisers does seem to help. The increase in the number of women participants is a good thing but it’s far from the necessary numbers. It doesn’t mean we should stop doing what we are doing, it just means we need to keep doing it in the long term,” says Muralidhar. However, the authors also point out that most women scientists across career levels are cautious about being vocal and visible in calling out systemic inequities. Especially, in Indian STEM academia this can affect their grants, collaborations, and career-advancing steps. 

In such an environment, BWI acts as a repository for the lack of women in Indian STEM events, to keep a record of the systematic exclusion, a way of holding people accountable. 

The authors have also included policy recommendations that could address the gender inequalities in STEM. For instance, most early-career grants or positions require candidates to be below 35 or 40 years, which penalises career paths that do not follow default, traditional models built to favour male careers, the scientists write in the paper. Changing these ageist barriers could open the space for more women. 

They also emphasize the importance of having stable mentorships and support systems in institutes and organisations including long-term mentor-mentee relationships that can support early-career women. Having a daycare centre in institutions can help reduce the stress on new mothers and hopefully make childcare a more equal responsibility. 

For long-term changes, it’s crucial to include experienced women scientists’ voices in academy-, department- and government-level decisions, they added in the study. They also suggest that a least 30% women scientists are included on all panels.

The lack of women in Indian STEM is not just a science issue, Muralidhar says, it’s also a social issue and has to be treated that way. 

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