Women in STEM: Looking behind and Looking ahead

As a woman in STEM, I am not just obligated to write about the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. I am privileged to spread the word as a scientist who faced far less gender-based discrimination than those who inspired me.

Incredible Women in Science by Natasha Dzhola /© Culture Trip

Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock, France Arnold, Andrea Ghez: they all have mesmerized the world with their contributions, despite what they had to go through. We have come a long way from the hidden figures of NASA’s Apollo Mission to the women behind the scenes of ISRO’s Mars Orbital Mission. In the testosterone-charged STEM world, women have been no less in their efforts and achievements, but they are still undervalued in many places. The occasion of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science celebrated every year on February 11 addresses and reminds everyone of the issue of gender equality in STEM. The fight for it is far from being over in the twenty-first century. Maybe writing such a piece perhaps is not the efficient way of letting people know the well-advertised, clichéd slogan, ‘WE NEED WOMEN IN STEM’. I doubt if posters of a scientist Rosy the Riveter in various institutions have been working effectively.

As a little, growing scientist myself, I often see aspiring female researchers, doctors, engineers, and technologists need to fight their way and be an inspiration and motivate little girls to join their endeavours. From my peers, mentors and teachers, I have heard stories encompassing a wide range of experience in scientific academia. Some felt welcome in the community, some were given due credit without asking for it, some progressed quickly in their career. Then there were stories which took a sharp turn from starry dreams to startling treatment — discrimination, unjustified rejection, sexual harassment, to name a few. And it has been my dream to work towards changing that one day. I did not have a lot of female role models in science when growing up, let alone female Indian scientists. I knew of the few popular ones, and the rest the right books and the right circles showed me eventually. And that is not ideal, especially in a world where not every nook and corner have the same level of access to inspirational resources.

And that brings me to the point of advancing opportunities and public outreach to scout for and invite female talent. In many places, school girls aren’t allowed to dream or learn science and sometimes seen as a liability — a social construct that governments can help change with scholarships and other educational benefits specifically for women. Improving the work environment, and benefits for female employees, and most importantly giving them equal credit and wages as their male counterparts will all help to retain and enhance the percentage of female scientists. Men recognising their privilege and becoming better colleagues can help alleviate a lot of those issues women face in STEM. True gender balance isn’t achieved until it becomes less of a surprise and a huge celebration that a women has reached a peak.

I take this opportunity to salute those great women who have taught the world a lesson that we are no less than our male counterparts, thus helping a lot of us to pursue dream careers in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And my especial gratitude to the women in the battlefield fighting the horrendous war against COVID-19. The theme of this year’s celebration: Women scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, is a fitting tribute to their tireless efforts.

Bibliophilic and quirky PhD student in Astronomy. A Chocoholic and Coffee-loving blogger who has something to say about life, the universe and everything.