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Contrary To Popular Belief, The M In STEM Doesn’t Stand For Man

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As of 2020, India has managed to overcome quite a few gender barriers when it comes to education up to class 12. However, the story of what happens after that is not very different today from what it was a decade or two ago. It is crucial to understand the causes which make women drop out of higher education and the workforce or never join them in the first place.

Equally important to discuss are the statistics that point out that there are far fewer women involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses compared to arts and humanities, especially in higher education. So, let’s delve into these issues!

In India, female labour force participation fell from 35% in 1990 to 27% in 2018. India fares better than its neighbour Pakistan but lags behind Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, and other countries at similar stages of growth and development. In most Indian households, there remains the obligation to get married early in life, and higher education for girls is not considered a viable option. In many cases, once women get married, they stop working and focus on family responsibilities, which is a significant cause of fewer females in the workforce.

About 84% girls drop out after graduation in India. Image only for representation. Source: Getty Images

Another critical aspect to consider while we talk about low female participation is the high drop out rate post-graduation. Studies suggest that about 84% of girls drop out after graduation—the pressure to marry early continues to come in the way. The median age of marriage for women in India remains 18.6, and their chances of entering the workforce and leading fulfilling lives even lower.

Considering daughters a liability, most parents often are sceptical about investing in their higher education, hesitation they do not experience while investing in the future of their sons. There remains a mindset that a woman’s primary role will shift to that of a caregiver post-marriage, and marriage itself is seen as an important milestone in her life—perhaps a goal that surpasses all other achievements.

A survey on social attitudes in 2016, found that around 40-60% of men and women believe that married women should not work if the husband earns reasonably well. Another huge issue is the decline in the number of jobs in India. When men are at a cultural and societal advantage with regard to employment, it is understood that they will have the upper hand when jobs are scarce. Sexual violence and uncomfortable/unsafe work environments also stop women from seeking employment.

Not just in India but all over the world, this vicious cycle begins when girls step back from continuing with STEM after school or university, while men don’t. This leads to skewed gender representation when it comes to STEM-related industrial or academic institutions and councils. Research indicates that about 74% of middle school girls are inclined towards STEM but Microsoft puts this percentage at a greater low in higher education.

A study performed in Europe says that women do better at math tests in gender-fair countries like Sweden and Iceland than the comparatively unfair ones like India and Turkey. We all know how important it is to have people capable of being role models in any profession. Ask five aspiring Indian cricketers, and at least three will tell you they want to be on the same pedestal as Sachin Tendulkar. Because of the lack of female role models in the STEM fields, young women don’t have women they can relate to and be inspired by.

Representational image.

Another huge cause that must be addressed is the sexism that women face in educational institutions and workplaces. There is a common misconception that women aren’t good in the so-called male-dominated STEM professions, which is why in many universities, girls get secondary treatment by faculty.

In most STEM workplaces, there is extreme pay and promotion disparity between men and women. According to a 2010 UK survey, women spent more hours teaching and fewer hours conducting research than men which implies that they have a higher chance of being assigned to jobs that do not bring much recognition.

Like many parts of the world, future jobs require more and more aspirants from a STEM background. The World Economic Forum estimates that India is likely to have 10-12 million graduates every year, making them the largest emerging workforce on the planet. But with only 25% of women entering the workforce, there’s a need for significant course correction. This can be done with structural changes in social attitudes that force girls out of schools and into marriages.

Behavioral shifts will play a major role in how inclusive the future workforce looks in India. Perhaps, to begin with, we need to redefine the role of women in our existing social structures. At present, women contribute only 18% to India’s GDP, one of the lowest in the world. To prosper as an economy, we need to bring more women into our workforce. A recent report showed that India could add a trillion dollars to its GDP if more women were to work. When we put this alongside the need for STEM skills needed to enter the workforce, it clearly emphasizes the need for women and girls to opt for STEM courses.

Apart from this, it is imperative that measures are taken to increase female labor force participation and their continuation of education. Societal norms need to be tackled and modified to a more gender-friendly and most importantly, women welcoming system.

Steps like increasing the duration of paid maternity leave could help to limit the drop-out of women from work after motherhood. Access to subsidized childcare may also free up time for women to engage in the labor force. It is also important for the government to create more jobs and do so in a way that they equally remain applicable, if not reserved, for women.

When it comes to getting more women into STEM, efforts need to be put in right from elementary education. Young girls should be made aware of historical and existing women who have done great work in these fields like Marie Curie, Katherine Johnson, etc.

Sexism needs to be fought in all spaces. For starters, equal pay for all genders and fair promotions might be a great idea to catalyze change. Perhaps if the right steps are taken now, very soon, this discussion might not need to take place. But, for now, it is imperative that we not only discuss but also take requisite actions.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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