The Society for Promotion of Science & Technology in India (SPSTI), Chandigarh Chapter of National Academy of Sciences India (NASI), IISER, Mohali with support from Haryana Council for Science, Innovation & Technology organised an online panel discussion on “Women & Girls in STEM” to celebrate International Women’s Day 2021 observed every year on March 08. The panel discussion was organised on Monday, March 08, 2021 at 06:00 PM (IST). It was attended by students, teachers and members of the general public. The panel discussion was live from Zoom platform with more than 56 attendees and many viewed on the Facebook page of SPSTI from various places all over the country.
The panelist included Dr. Pratibha Jolly, FNASc, FInstP (IoP, UK), Science & Society Fellow, NASI, Academic Consultant NAAC, Former Principal, Miranda House, University of Delhi, Dr. Harvinder K. Jassal, Associate Professor from Dept. of Physical Sciences, IISER Mohali, Dr. Rama Bhargava. Professor of Mathematics and Former Dean Academics & Member BOG, IIT Roorkee, Dr. Suman B. Beri, Professor of Physics from Panjab University, Chandigarh, Dr. Abha Sur, Lecturer, History of Science & Gender Studies from MIT, USA, Dr. Meenal Kumar, Sr. Gynecologist, and formerly SMO, General Hospital, Sec-16, Chandigarh, Dr. Nishima Wangoo, Assistant Professor from Dept. of Applied Sciences (Chemistry), UIET, Panjab University, Chandigarh and Dr. Genemala Haobijam, General Manager, Samsung Research Institute, Noida.
The panel discussion steered with the introduction and opening remarks by Prof. Arun K. Grover, Former Vice Chancellor of Panjab University and Vice President of SPSTI. Prof. Keya Dharmvir, General Secretary, SPSTI introduced the speaker Dr. Harvinder K. Jassal. Dr. Harvinder K. Jassal is Associate Professor at Dept. of Physical Sciences, IISER Mohali. Dr. Jassal shared data relating to women which calls for attention towards the situation of women in STEM. As per UNESCO report Myanmar has the highest percentage (nearly 85%) of women in STEM. In South Asian countries India is the second last having only about 13% women in STEM. Another report of National Task Force for Women in Science by Dr. Mahtab S. Bamji shows the percentage of women in government institutes, close to 30%. Also, there is a sharp decline in the percentage of the workforce. Almost 44.2% women did PhD in Science in 2015-16 and only 14.9% joined the scientific workforce. In 2015, Astronomical Society of India constituted a working group for gender equity, to collect and analyse data of women in the astronomic community in India. This working group conducts gender sensitization talk and workshop, provides mentorship as needed, maintains a web page with relevant resource material, and contributes towards the creation of an equitable workplace environment for the members of the INdian Astronomical community. The results of ASI survey (2021) shows almost 55% respondents were men. About nearly 65% respondents feel there is gender-based discrimination against women in India. Probable reasons that were highlighted with study were family constraints (62.6%), lack of personal motivation (15.4%), conservative setup of the society (50.5%) and inflexible structure at institutions (51.6%). Dr. Jassal focussed on mentorship and role models for women needs to be there to motivate and help them at a young stage.
Dr. Rama Bhargava is Professor of Mathematics, Former Dean Academics & Member BOG at IIT Roorkee. She was introduced by Ms. Rajni Bhalla. Women are important to society but the position of women in STEM is gloomy. Gender stereotyping is the most common problem which can be dealt with quality education regardless of gender. Quoting an example, she said internationally renowned architect Zaha was called a ‘woman architect’, while male architects were called ‘male architects’. Very few women have been able to reach the top positions in STEM institutions where they need to prove competence and capability. There are many hindrances that women and girls face. First is the disabling environment, poor mentoring, poor support of teachers and parents. There is a very high dropout rate of girls from schools in science and mathematics. Second is the multiple roles of the girls and double burden syndrome due to family and children. Thirdly, there is also a lack of role models not in the country but around the world. Girls need to me apprise about the various women in STEM and motivate them to take up the path in their life. Fourth, girls have been constantly told they cannot excel in science and should pursue social science and humanities. Girls need to be motivated and made to believe they are equally competent to study any subject of their choice, also STEM. This calls for a gender sensitive educational environment, dismantling the myth and misconception in girls in STEM through leadership and mentorship. Mathematics have an important and inevitable role in day to day, and studying mathematics makes life more efficient and solvable also. She compared STEM with stem of a plant which makes connection between roots and fruits, STEM helps to make technological and economic development creating links between technology and society.
Dr. Pratibha Jolly is FNASc,FInstP (IoP, UK), Science & Society Fellow, NASI, Academic Consultant NAAC and Former Principal, Miranda House, University of Delhi. She was introduced by Prof. Keya Dharamvir. She talked about gender parity and how 50% of the population can contribute to GDP, and hence women need to work for the development of any nation. There is a need to maintain work life balance. In education possibly in the next 12 years, we may have gender parity, as countries are working for literacy. Also, girls in high schools are outperforming boys. Same is the case in graduation, post-graduation and PhD, at least in metricities, but the number is not so good. The number of girls in life sciences is much better in comparison to physics, engineering and computer sciences. Future jobs will need disruptive technologies as part of your repertoire, but the women’s share in the professional courses and skills are very little, which needs upskilling and reskilling. Being accelerated students when she looked for options in India to pursue further after MSc, took up teaching but found it very monotonous and devoid of application and hence to give flavour of research to undergraduates she took up a project from DST. And thus, working almost 14 years where college was the laboratory to go and implement everything there. Owing to her experiential teaching and it was not she who had to fit the role of positions she held but the roles had to fit to her. Owing to her experiences she feels the generational diversity also needs to be celebrated. She talked about the six women scientists working on the forefront in present days of pandemic and have given the vaccines, namely Sumathy from Bharat Biotech for COVAXIN, Sarah Gilbert from Oxford for AstraZeneca, Katelyn and Carico for Pfizer, Mika Patel for Novavax, Elena Smolyarchuk for Sputnik V, Kizzmekia Corbett of Moderna, stating women inn no way are less to work in field of science. We need to bridge the aspirational gender gaps. The new generation has a moonshot thinking generation, they are aiming at global challenges. They are using these disruptive technologies to come up with software solving problems close to the heart. There is a need to foster the next generation of science leaders. Also women’s contributions have not been awarded enough. Only four Nobel prizes out of 216 have been awarded to women. There are still women in Life Sciences, but more women need to join the frontiers in the physics areas. There are women who are first generation learners and are being aspirational, meeting the cutoff of 110 on 100. Also, the women at institutes of national importance are not only from IITS, they are coming from the small regional engineering colleges. There is a need to unleash institutional innovations and the young innovators and scientists need to be celebrated. There is a need to create gender responsive learning environments with context rich problem solving. There is a need to break the stereotype that women cannot do science. The times demands the hardcore sciences and both men and women need to do that. Through Gati institutions will create smart goals and action plans which would be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound. She said it’s not the women who need fixing, but there is need to not have these deficit models and change the climate of the institutions.
Dr. Genemala Haobijam is General Manager, Samsung Research Institute, Noida. She was introduced by Dr. Fatma Gausiya. She shared that almost after spending an equal number of years in academics and industry she finds no reason for women to not choose STEM and also there is no reason why we women cannot succeed. She shared four success keys. First and the most important key to success is knowing thyself. Knowing self-help to identify own strengths and weaknesses. It is me who knows best about myself. It is a continuous process that keeps one humble and finds what skills one needs to improve or acquire. The second key to success is self-management. One must assess one’s own performance and identify what strategies need to be taken to improve, identify the help one needs, and also upskilling is very important to stay successful. The third key is to build self-confidence. Many studies suggest that professional women have less confidence which ultimately leads them to leave their first place of career or move to different areas. Knowing and managing self helps to build self-confidence, also making one more resilient and helps to bounce back from the hardships. The last key and fourth key manage physical and emotional energy. One must stay positive and have focus to demonstrate better persistence towards success. One should be consistent with work and activities that they value the most. Managing emotional energy gives a sense of meaning and purpose to what one does. Knowing and managing oneself with strong confidence is the key to overcome any challenge with the right energy and regardless of how supportive, or hostile.
Dr. Suman B. Beri is Emeritus Professor of Physics, Panjab University, Chandigarh. She was introduced by Prof. Keya DHaramvir. She shared her journey in STEM. After class 11th, she wanted to join engineering but since there was one girl in Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh, she was discouraged to join. The next best choice she had was to pursue Physics honours from Panjab University. On the day of admission she was told by a senior professor that physics is a tough subject, to which she replied nothing is tough if one works hard. After verification of documents. She got the admission but was hesitant and wanted to see practical labs, dark rooms and the department. She finally deposited the fee and entered the Physics Department of Punjab University in 1966. She called herself fortunate to receive help from my colleagues and friends. She shared that the ratio was much lower for girls with only 6 girls among 40 boys in MSc. After finishing MSc in Physics, on insistence of one the superintendent of department she filled up the form for PhD, and was the last candidate to be interviewed and was selected for PhD after the interview. She was in a dilemma to join PhD as there were no girls. She tried convincing other fellow girl students to join PhD, but only one of them agreed but did not get admission. She was told that we usually do not take girls for PhD as they leave in between. But, having support from her parents she pursued PhD, as the only girl student in that batch in the department. She shared how Professor Stiller, one of the collaborators from the USA, while he visited the department was surprised that a woman was pursuing PhD and remarked in our country, we have women only up to Secretary level. She was the first lady professor in the Physics department, and remained so for more than 10 years. She shares that though the number of women in STEM is increasing, the growth in this number is very slow. She says women are very powerful and can do multifarious tasks. Sharing her lows in life she told her husband passed away in 1992 but with the cooperation from faculty, chairperson and friends she could survive. Her formula for success is 3 Hs and S, which stands for hard work, honesty, humbleness and sincerity. If one works hard, one can be successful.
Dr. Abha Sur is Lecturer, History of Science & Gender Studies at MIT, USA. She was introduced by Prof. Arun K. Grover. She began her talk with the question of what inhibits the women from pursuing science. He talked about what women can contribute to the knowledge system of science and what needs to change in that system, as why many women leave the field. There is constant devaluation, even when women are successful and efficient but do not get the recognition, their male counterpart. She cited an example of Madam Curie, who by then won two Nobel prizes and visited Yale University, where a professor remarked in surprise that she does know her science. There has been constant feed to women being able to accomplish due to luck, and is not credited to her hard work and persistence. This culture of science needs to be changed, if women are to be retained in science. She shared while her venture into history of science and interviewing Dr. Rana Mani, she said, why do you think science is so difficult. She talked about the numerous ways in which the women were put down, where one mistake by women is broadcasted. There are subtle messages for women. What causes this culture of science, we look at the nature of science itself. There is a kind of hierarchy in the scientific institution despite it being a public and egalitarian institution. Science has gotten in tangled with the ways it is used for society and the commercial and militaristic purposes. There is a dichotomy for women, because women are socialized into nurturing creatures in the household as well as the public. As women get more than more into the sciences, there is a need to change the nature of science. It is not that women are born with certain qualities, but are socialized into doing science, in particular ways. The present times has shown us there need to be collaboration with being competitive, and we need to make it more pleasant and habitable atmosphere as it is very demeaning where women do much better but as they grow higher there is sharp decline.
Dr. Meenal Kumar was Sr. Gynaecologist, formerly SMO at General Hospital, Sector 16, Chandigarh. She was introduced by Dr. R. Kumar. She began her talk by sharing the theme for women’s day for 2021 is “women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a post COVID world”. She said women can choose to challenge gender bias and inequality as they have been on the front line during COVID-19 as health workers, care givers, doctors, scientists. She advocated STEM education for girls, which stimulates participation in science and technology while building self-confidence, knowledge and integrating it with life education. She said students need to be confident and resilient based on three C’s, which are critical thinking, collaboration and creativity. The today’s generation is battling with challenges of poor nutrition, lack of exercise, obesity, bullying issues, low motivation and obsession with gadgets like smartphones. There is also lack of sex education. There is need for schools to incorporate pursuit of health, personal growth and improved quality of life in the curriculum. A healthy lifestyle is needed to succeed. She shared one need to do at least 60 minutes of physical activity for five to seven days a week which must include flexibility, stretching and resistance exercises. She also talked about the physical and emotional changes in adolescents during puberty. Adolescents also need to be made aware about the hazards of violence and use of drugs and smoking.
Dr. Nishima Wangoo is Assistant Professor at Department of Applied Sciences (Chemistry), UIET, Panjab University, Chandigarh. She was introduced by Dr. Fatma Gausiya. She focused on the problem of gender stereotyping from childhood in very subtle ways. Though nature has created both genders differently but has maintained balance but this balance has been disturbed by humans. Women are expected to excel in every front be it home or the workplace, sometimes setting unrealistic expectations. Women need to be accepted and their problems and challenges need to be addressed. She said keeping aside the gender disparity, both men and women should get proper recognition when they deserve it. She also emphasised on the sharp decline in number of women as we move up the hierarchy. She also experienced the same during her education and believes that we still have reservations about women doing a PhD, especially in the science field, and these comes from the family first. Though she herself did not witness gender bias. She found that after PhD when women want to move further in career, she has to make choices. She calls for the support of families in such situations, and cited it as one of the important reasons for women dropping out from sciences. She emphasised that the importance on the women issues should not dilute after the women’s day. Both genders need to be treated at par with each other. She also emphasised the role of women supporting women. As women, she says, we understand each other better and empathise. Women should empower other women and instead of being competitive, there is a need to be cooperative.
The panel discussion was much appreciated by attendees and also led to discussion about the provision in policies for flexibility in working schedule, especially for working mothers. Shri Dharam Vir, IAS (Retd.) & President SPSTI, presented concluding remarks and vote of thanks to the speakers and audience and also emphasised that there are strong women in politics and are doing well with complete transparency, but there are few women in educational institutes at top positions. He said the issues must be addressed and women can also be at top in sciences.