Participation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) fields in almost all countries is far behind an equal participation. In the case of India, an acknowledgement of this as an issue and area that needs proactive action is yet to be seen. At FAT we believe that in the Indian context, beyond the obvious reason of gender discrimination within STEM fields, violence and discrimination against women and girls within family and outside as well as multiple marginalization based on caste, class, religion, region, etc., are directly responsible for the gender gap in STEM. Hence, we believe that majority of women are systematically kept out of access to basic STEM education, usage and career.
To close the gender gap in STEM fields in the long run, FAT believes we need to invest in entry of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds into STEM education and innovation by challenging the multiple biases that they face. If we uncover and understand the various channels of negative feedback regarding STEM studies that schoolgirls receive, it is possible to counter these stimuli.
We started promoting STEM education amongst economically disadvantaged girls in 2013 through a study conducted in five government schools and one private school followed by workshops. The question explored in the study was - What were the reasons for girls from an underprivileged background being dissuaded in choosing STEM courses – especially Science and Maths - within the Indian context? The key findings were that, more often than not, girls are unable to develop an interest or aptitude for STEM owing to various factors—parental pressure to drop out of education or pursue arts, home science and other “feminine” streams, lack of infrastructural support in schools, lack of role models to aspire to in STEM fields, and discouragement from their teachers that de-motivates them from fully exploring STEM subjects. The study also revealed that pressure of household chores and restrictions on mobility limited girls opportunity to explore their potential. Both home and school work hand-in-hand in strengthening the girl’s fear for subjects like science and maths which leads her to believe that these are subjects meant only for boys to study and excel in.
Post this study, we started a pilot project called the Jugaad (Innovation) Lab to explore how hands-on STEM learning in a feminist environment can encourage and support girls to pursue STEM education. The Lab has been created as a space for girls to learn about STEM through doing - a place where they can tinker, build, break and rebuild stuff to learn through hands-on work and experimentation - while also understanding the patriarchal structures and systematic discrimination that prevents them from accessing opportunities in STEM and how they can counter such challenges. As of now, 25 girls between the age of 10 to 15 are enrolled in the Lab.