8 years of womensweb

Plugging The Leaks In Science

Posted: February 27, 2012

Several constraints prevent Indian women from building a career in science & technology. FAT works towards equipping women to overcome these hurdles.

By Srirupa Bhowmik & Nandini Rao

When you think of the word “scientist”, what image comes to your mind – a man or a woman? A man in a white lab coat, looking over some test tubes, pipettes and bubbling beakers? Of course, it is a clichéd picture, but that is precisely what we are trying to get at.

What are our gender stereotypes about scientistsand “techies”? Who usually makes it to the medical and engineering colleges? Once they graduate, what kind of jobs do they take up? Who reach the upper echelons of power and decision-making? Do we hear more about women or men being in high-powered government committees on science and technology? Wouldn’t we like to see more women like Dr. Indira Hinduja (first test tube baby), Dr. Aditi Pant (part of a research team to Antarctica), Kiran Majumdar-Shaw (CEO, Biocon Biopharmaceuticals), Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams (both astronauts)?

What did you say is leaking?

However, often, the reality on the ground is depressingly different. Worldwide, statistics show that girls are excelling at the primary and secondary school levels. Sadly, the numbers do not translate into higher membership in science and technology(S&T). Experts call it the “Leaky Pipeline”. It refers to the steady decline of girls and women throughout the formal S&T system, from primary education to decision-making in S&T.

The pipeline seems to start leaking from girlhood and continues till adulthood.

Plugging leaks – the feminist way!

Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT) is a pioneering non-profit organization committed to empowering women through technology. It believes that women are crucial agents of social change and as such, are very capable of using and creating all kinds of technology. The wheels of evolving technology are never going to stay still, and it is important that women catch up with it, as well as have equal partnership in its future.

FAT envisions a world where all women have equal opportunities to learn, use and create technology, irrespective of their academic background, economic status or geographical location. An environment where women break out of age-old gendered notions of space and work; and learn to experiment with and benefit from new technologies. FAT has adopted three strategies to achieve this vision.

FAT envisions a world where all women have equal opportunities to learn, use and create technology…

First, through its advocacy strategy, FAT works with women’s groups and development agencies to raise consciousness and advocate about women’s participation and decision-making in S&T. Advocacy with state agencies aims to bring about critical change in policies related to mainstreaming women and girls in S&T (to reduce gender inequalities), as well as facilitate their retention in this field.

The second strategy (in the planning stage) is to work directly with women in technical careers in order to help them locate their professional lives (and the resulting constraints) within the larger context of women’s rights.

Third is the work with adolescent girls. FAT will soon be launching a project to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education among school girls. For the past two years, the team has been running a Tech Centre for adolescent girls from urban poor communities. Here, FAT not only provides technical education to both school going and dropout girls, but it also uses the Centre as a space to build leadership amongst these young women.

There are many heartening stories that emerged out of our two year long relationship with adolescent girls. Anita’s story is one of them.

Anita Sai*, 19 years old, struggling with the usual changes that teenage years bring, was all set to start her studies in political science at college. One day, she and her family got a rude shock when they got news of the untimely death of her elder sister (married with one daughter) in her matrimonial home. Soon after, Anita’s family started pressuring her to get married to her brother-in-law (in order to take over the familial responsibilities that her deceased sister had shouldered). But Anita had dreamt of something for herself. She wanted to study, earn her living, buy a car and “go on a long drive” in it! She was willing to work for it, but all this suddenly seemed to be out of her reach. She went into depression.

At that time, Anita was a student at the FAT Tech Centre. She turned to the only place from where she could hope to get some support. The FAT team swung into action, spoke to her family and managed to convince them that her dreams were more important than their own constraints. FAT’s intervention helped. Anita’s marriage was cancelled and she was allowed to pursue her studies. However, the family’s condition was that they would not pay her college fees. FAT found a sponsor for her. Anita successfully completed the 6 months’ course at the Tech Centre. She now also continues her studies at college.

FAT provides many young women like Anita the space to learn about technology, share and discuss issues close to their hearts, laugh and cry, sing and dance. Some of them complete what they set out to do, while others fall through the cracks of the system. However, in the process, they become strong and learn to believe in themselves.

What more could anyone ask for?

*Name changed on request

*Picture: Helping young girls get tech-smart. Pic courtesy FAT.

About The Author: Nandini Rao is a women's rights activist who has been working on and doing advocacy around women's issues for the past twenty years. She is a trainer and counsellor and writes on various issues related to feminism and women's rights.

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