Why are there more men than women in the field of STEM?

The Mangalyaan mission also made the world leader in space, U.S., take note of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s capabilities. | File Photo  

Across the world, there are more men who are active in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) than women. What is the sociology behind this gender-divide? Research shows that when men and women apply for jobs — be in the labour market, or in places where high level qualifications are demanded, men candidates engage in self-promotion, and are boastful while equally qualified women are more ‘modest’ and ‘undersell’ themselves. Even in groups and situations where men and women are present as colleagues, the views of women are either ignored or listened to less seriously than those of men. As a result, women tend to underestimate their ability relative to men, especially in public settings, and negotiate less successfully.

This last point has been particularly brought out in a detailed set of studies by Dr. Sapna Cheryan and colleagues of the University of Washington, Seattle, in their paper: ’why are some STEM fields more gender balanced than others?’ (Psychological Bulletin 2017;143:1-35, open access). They point out that in the United States while over 60% of BS, MS and PhD degrees in biological and chemical sciences are from women, only 25-30% of them do computer science, physics and engineering. Why this imbalance? The authors suggest three socio-psychological reasons, namely (1) masculine culture, (2) lack of sufficient early exposure to computers, physics and related areas compared to boys in early childhood and (3) gender gap in self-efficacy.

Stereotypes and role models

What is ‘masculine culture’? This is due to stereotyping that men are fitter for certain jobs and skills than women, and that women are more ‘delicate’, ‘tender’ and thus unfit for ‘hard’ jobs. In addition, there are not enough female role models whom women may admire and follow. (Of the 866 Nobel winners so far, only 53 have gone to women. And even in life sciences and medicine, of the over 400 Lasker awards, only 33 have gone to women). Regarding point 2, namely, lack of exposure in early childhood to certain fields, the supposed stereotyping of computer field practitioners as ‘nerds’ with social awkwardness would seem to have played a role from women shying away into other fields.

The third point, namely, the ‘gender gap in self-efficacy’, appears to have arisen as a result of the above two, and leads to a worry in girls’ and women’s minds as to ‘whether I am really only fit for certain ‘soft’ fields and jobs (such as in social sciences and life sciences)’— or a feeling of diffidence. This is clearly a reflection and product of masculine culture.

But then, even when we turn to life sciences, where both men and women compete for positions and career advancements in universities and research labs, this gender disparity is glaring. Analysis has revealed that research-intensive universities take fewer women students. It has also been noted that many qualified women scientists have stopped applying for grants from the major national agency, the National Institutes of Health, realising that they may be turned down. An extensive analysis by Lerchenmueller, Olav Sorensen and Anupam B. Jena, titled: “Gender Differences in How Scientists Present the Importance of their Research: Observational Study”, has appeared in the 16 December issue this year of The British Medical Journal (BMJ 2019;367:l6573, open access; I strongly recommend reading it). Here, they have analysed 1,01,720 clinical research articles, plus 6.2 million papers in life sciences (appearing in PubMed) for the 15-year period 2002 to 2017, and found that women remain under-represented in the medical faculty and in life science research centres and universities. They also earn lower salaries, receive fewer research grants and fewer citations of their research papers than men colleagues.

India is no better

Men rule the roost here too, and how do they do it? They use more ‘buzzwords’, boosting their own work than women. A total of 25 such buzzwords are noted by the authors- some of the more frequent ones are: novel, unique, trendsetting, robust, and remarkable. In contrast, women are more modest and thus undersell themselves. Sadly enough, this boasting leads to more grants, leading to faster promotions, salary hikes, plus membership in decision-making committees. This self-perpetuation is a reflection of what Cheryan et al. had described as “machismo”. The results of this paper in BMJ were widely reported in the popular press, and one such paper titled it as: ‘Male scientists outshout women’!

Are Indian scientists too guilty of this? There surely must be many papers among the 6.2 million that the BMJ paper had looked at where Indian authors figure. We await such an analysis of the grant proposals, decision making bodies and publications in the Indian context. But that such an imbalance exists in India has been made clear by the recent book by Dr. Namrata Gupta, titled: “Women in Science and Technology: Confronting Inequalities” (SAGE Publications India, 2019). She points out that India has been a patrilineal society with the notion that women need not take on jobs, and that this notion has only recently been revised. She points out that women form only 10-15% of STEM researchers and faculty members in the IITs, CSIR, AIIMS and PGIs. In private R & D labs, there are very few women scientists. Alas, we are no better that the rest of the world.

When we turn to research recognition and honours received by Indian scientists, my colleague G. Ponnari points out that the science academies have hardly 10% women, The Bhatnagar Prize has gone to 18 women out of a total of 548 so far, and the Infosys Prize to 16 out of a total of 52. Interestingly, there are no (or a minute percentage of women experts) women in each of these juries.

It would be interesting to study the ratio in research grants offered by the national agencies (such as DST, DBT, SERB, ICMR, DRDO) and do a Lerchenmueller type analysis of grant titles and descriptions (keeping the names and the texts secret so that copyright and propriety rights are not revealed) to check whether Indian men scientists too outshout. May we request the agencies to do so?

An earlier version of this report erroneously stated the number of women to have received the Infosys Prize as 15, instead of 16.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 9:08:53 AM |

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