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We recently visited a couple friends of ours, who had a baby. Obviously they were over the moon about having one and immediately the topic veered towards the baby’s school, college, graduation subject, university etc. We had to pinch them literally to take it easy. The husband quipped instantly to his wife, “English, history, geography, painting and stitching on you” and “Maths is on me”. This has become an unspoken rule in every house as much as a fact that gravity exists. Even if the mother is an IAS or IPS or even a scientist, I wonder if it will ever be her prerogative to lay the roots of numeric science in her newborn because after all she is a girl and math is not her thing.
In fact almost every single day I come across gender stereotyping in education where at the brink of deciding a future for their kids most parents naturally suggest Humanities to their daughters and Math and other ‘tough’ courses to their boys. The only progress we have made in a span of 30-odd years is the Humanities have been subtly replaced with biology or medicine. While Humanities was considered feminine and more engaging to women since that is what they would end up doing the schools and family systems then hammered it on the girls that this what they should be doing. Over the years with some debates and arguments there has been a little paradigm shift and Humanities has now been replaced with Biology.
According to the article in The Guardian, this is not just an Indian phenomenon but stands true across the world. This issue of perceiving women to be more inclined to Biology and boys to Physics is something that is set in schools itself. Biology and consequently medicine courses are viewed as more interactive that is natural to women. Physics and Math is about experiments and calculations and seen as a boring tough job that the men are better cut out to do. According to a report in New York Times, a whopping 58% of bachelors, masters and doctorates in Biology were awarded to women against a meagre 17 to 18% degrees in Physics, Engineering and Math. But this is not to say that women don’t opt for Mathematics as a major subject in university. Even if the percentage is lesser, there are still women who debunk this myth and not only graduate but go on to really excel in the mathematics.
As noted in The Guardian, during the Second World War and throughout the sixties, women were the largest trained technical workforce of the computing industry. They were highly skilled and were advertised across Britain and other countries as the face of computing companies. But once the government and management of large companies realized the importance of computing and automation, they quickly decided that they weren’t going to have women in charge of computers.
Women were considered low level drones or liabilities to a company since they would soon leave their jobs for marriage and motherhood. Based on this, managers systematically devalued the women in the workforce as they would not demand a promotion or higher wages. They were forced to perceive the job as a privilege given the assumption that their careers will be shorter already. By the end of 70s, women who were equally skilled as their male counterparts were no longer welcome in the workforce and had been forced to believe that math and computing were not meant for them.
The struggle with Math and Engineering is not over yet and women still find themselves proving to the world all over about their worth. In India, the infographics suggest it’s no more a marked territory for either of the genders. Women are as technically sound or even better compared to the male counterparts. They constitute almost 49% of the workforce but particularly the numbers are still less i.e. only 20% of the tech workforce is women. While every few years, the glass ceiling on these perceived norms is broken we still have a long way to go to change the numbers in the workforce. According to recent reports, women mathematicians in India are only at a meagre 10%. This is because the academia field does not provide many women friendly policies deeming it impossible for women to balance a mathematics career.
Mangala Narlikar was a reputed researcher at TIFR and also wife of astro-physicist Jayant Narlikar. Both moved to England for further education but Mangala was not encouraged to pursue research above family responsibilities. She continued to study through the decade where she was raising their children and completed her research in the field of science. Almost after a decade and a half of Jayant’s success in science did Mangala finally find her ground and built a career in science well in her 50s.
Even outside India, if you look at the inspiring story of Maryam Mirzakhani should be known to all the young girls who dream to pursue Math. At the age of 37, Mirzakhani was the only woman to have won the Fields Medal – the most prestigious award in mathematics. Her legendary gold medals have inspired not only Iranian women but in fact all women around the world. They are now willing to step up their game and major in the field of numerics. Even in the past women have fought their circumstances and emerged from it proving that there is nothing about numbers a woman can’t do.
Lilavati’s daughters an initiative by Indian Academy of Science brings forth the stories of women scientists in India from who battled everyday issues to pursue their passion for science. Some of the stories are so fascinating for example: B. Vijayalaxmi pursued her PhD in physics. Her extensive research and contributions to quantum mechanics laid the foundation for many interesting developments in future. But while doing all this she was also battling stomach cancer and would take chemotherapy and treatments that rendered her nearly immobile. Her story is relevant even today i.e. the struggles a woman has to go through to pursue her passion. She challenged the administration about policies and also pursued an active political career despite all odds.
R.J Hans Gill had to dress up like a boy to attend school. She further went on to major in discrete geometry and Diophantine approximations. Kusum Marathe completed her M.Sc in Botany but took nearly 20 years to complete her PhD while managing her family obligations which left very little time for research. Anna Mani had submitted 5 single authored papers for her research in Physics and Instrumentation. She was the only woman scientist to work with Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman who was famously against women working. Despite the expertise, the doctorate eluded Anna Mani even when there was enough evidence that she deserved it outright.
Kamala Sohonie however on the other had was the first woman to get a PhD in science but her journey was not easy either. She had to literally do ‘satyagraha’ which led to Dr. C.V. Raman to finally agree to admit her in the IISc.
All these stories are not to pull daggers out against gender roles but just to prove a point that women can excel in these subjects just as well as men do. If the early perception in schools about these subjects is kept neutral and individual merit is given momentum as opposed to these norms we would have a lot of women in STEM careers. The policies need to be more flexible for women to be able to balance a career in math and science. Not just in school but even in the fabric of our family setup, let’s not any notions of gender in pursuing a career in any stream. Parents should in fact encourage both girls and boys to pursue their passion in a subject based on their potential and the ability to build a future with it. An open dialogue and a neutral non-judgmental approach to this would really push a child to discover their potential. Let’s view individual merit of a child and not paralyze them early on. It’s time we defy our own boundaries and challenge our own rules to create an empowering world for all especially women.
Next time girls, if someone serves you Humanities on a platter, excuse them and say I want the Math too.
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