Introducing the Girls’ STEM Education Program in India

While the literacy rate among girls is getting better gradually, the gender gap still continues and when it comes to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, girls are significantly underrepresented in most parts of India. Various factors are responsible for this disparity, such as differential socialization of men and women, impaired self-confidence and expectations regarding the impact of children on women's academic careers. Parents may not want to spend money for their daughters, or do not want to send their daughters to faraway places for safety concerns. The roots of this problem in India lie in the different gender experiences of boys and girls. As young girls and women, females are socialized to seek help and be help givers rather than to be self-reliant or to function autonomously or competitively, as are boys.

According to Gayatri Buragohain, founder of Joint Leap Technologies and Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT), women receive a number of signals from a very early age that discourage them from entering STEM fields. For many, she argues, it comes down to the absence of role models and mentors. “You can't be what you can't see," said Buragohain. However, negative perceptions and stereotypes of STEM as a path for the geeky and unattractive also have an impact. Frequent portrayals in the media only serve to reinforce these views, making girls self-conscious about their chosen paths and undermining their confidence. The lack of a strong female presence in STEM fields means women have little say in decisions that could make the world a better place, even when they rise to the top of other fields. “A healthy society is one in which men and women work in partnership. It’s not just women who need to have more women in technology—society needs it,” Buragohain said.

Engendering STEM Education

In an attempt to remove these barriers and encourage girls’ to enter STEM fields, IIE’s New Delhi office began the planning phase for a pilot program to be launched early in 2014. To kick off the need assessment, I was joined by the education technology expert- Ms. Vasanta to visit Hyderabad, the bustling capital of Andhra Pradesh in South of India. We met several government officials of education department, local NGOs, school Principals and science teachers to get their views on the field realities, teachers’ attitude, girls’ aspiration and parents’ involvement in career decisions. It was interesting to observe the diverse views, strokes of optimism and pessimism, hopes and realities, but all good data to help us with our future strategies.

The most enthralling experience was to visit two schools (up to class 10th) and a junior college (class 11th and 12th) run by local government. One school was especially for the minority community and only for girls, and all three were English medium. The school’s Principal was a well-respected woman with a passion for women’s education and empowerment who ushered us to the biology class where we sat with girls for a short lesson on “How Mosquitos Cause Malaria?” What an experience! Sujatha the Science teacher was engaging, her head covered with chalk dust as she was constantly drawing figures and writing while lecturing and asking questions to the class. A short interaction with Sujatha and handful of girls after the class validated a few assumptions stated above about parents’ involvement in girls’ career decision and the perceived comfort to continue with humanities rather than the “geeky” science subjects. However a few of them were strongly focused to continue to study biology. What a bunch of cheerful, smart young girls they were. I hope they continue to realize their dreams.

We also came back assured that if teachers are given tools and training that make teaching and learning Science and Math more interactive, the retention will be higher. We were also assured that we must work with the parents to help them make informed and shared decision for their daughters. Vasanta will be sharpening her tools in the coming weeks to integrate technology into the curriculum based on the data gathered during our visit. The next visit is scheduled for Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu and I hope to have the same animated discussion and fascinating experience. The details will be captured in the next blog.