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Opinion

February 11, 2018

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Women in science

There is no lack of talent in Pakistan. Then why is there an immense gender gap in professional fields involving science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM)? If your answer to this question is that the gender gap doesn’t exist as there are many women at medical colleges in Pakistan, then you’re half correct – and only painfully so.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated on February 11. Unfortunately, the gender parity ranking in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (also referred to as STEM) fields for Pakistan has hit rock bottom. While it seems that there isn’t much to celebrate, we can view it as a window of opportunity. Weeding out the causes of this dearth of women in STEM fields can provide an insight into what can be changed to tip the scales.

Girls are ostensibly pushed towards dolls and plastic cooking sets from an early age while boys are gifted toy cars, building blocks, board games and toy robots that stimulate their spatial and analytical faculties well before their parents send them to school. As it happens, children are attached to their toys and are believed to gain creativity as well as social skills from the games they play. A research conducted by the Association of Psychological Science in January 2015 revealed that children who frequently play with puzzles, construction sets and board games tend to have better cognitive abilities.

No conscious effort is made to cultivate interest among girls to toys that focus on math, science, and construction activities. Their lack of interest is conveniently attributed to biological factors and shrugged off. According to an American Society for Engineering Education investigation of Amazon.com datasets, physics and engineering toys were each purchased at a rate of only about 8.5 percent for girls. There is possibly some variation in the trend of buying toys based on gender stereotypes in Pakistan. The question of ‘how much’ is currently open to speculation. What’s interesting to note here is that girls in class eight have usually outperformed boys in all subjects in Pakistan. If girls weren’t inherently inclined towards technological conquests, they would have scored poorly in educational assessments.

The question that arises is: what changes after class eight? Why do girls lose interest in fields related to engineering, technology and mathematics? In Pakistan, more girls can comfortably choose to study in a medical university because these institutes already have a significant number of female students. The representation of women as doctors and pediatricians in TV serials and commercials has ‘normalised’ the presence of a female medical practitioner at hospitals.

But there are few relatable role models for Pakistani girls within science and tech industries, especially within the engineering sector. This does not mean that exceptional Pakistani women practitioners in STEM fields don’t exist. We have merely neglected their tremendous achievements. Pakistani women have become pilots, engineers and pioneers. But how many of their trailblazing triumphs have become common knowledge?

Recently, at the Lahore Science Mela, the Women Engineers Pakistan booth received considerable attention from school-going girls and their parents. Inspired by this response, Women Engineers Pakistan is now running a month-long campaign to highlight women role models to encourage future generations of engineers, technologists, and scientists.

We have received hundreds of emails from young girls about which engineering field is the most “suitable for girls”. Upon further inquiry, we often find that their elders are not sure if the chosen field will be safe for a woman to navigate. It is difficult to blame them as many of us would be just as concerned knowing what we do about workplace harassment within the tech sector. We must not forget that there are some inspirational female engineers who work on site. The only difference is that their organisations actually make direct efforts to foster a welcoming work environment for them. Organisations that take an active stand to making their workplaces safer and are more accommodating have been seen to retain more women in STEM fields.

While sexual harassment laws are already in place in Pakistan, we still need to cover a lot of ground. These distressing events come in all shapes and sizes. For example, a male professor recently told me that female faculty members are seldom hired for the engineering department because they cannot stay back late and conduct outdoor sessions. Such convenient generalisations by experts reflect the implicit or unexamined biases against women.

Equal pay based on gender is not mandated by the government of Pakistan, or any law within the country. But from a bird’s eye view, Pakistan is moving towards gender parity – albeit at an extremely slow rate. There are many efforts being made to highlight the gender gap and organisations are taking fresh strides to recruit and retain more skilled women.

One thing that has repeatedly surfaced is the concept of diversity. Diversity includes the many different social identities that give meaning to us and the social groups that we belong to. It reflects a headcount of who is at the table. Unfortunately in Pakistan, including a woman speaker in the panel of a tech conference or having six female employees in a company of 10,000 workers is considered to be sufficient in creating a diverse atmosphere.

What we need to focus on is the concept of inclusion. Inclusion deals with questions about the ‘how’. How is an STEM organisation embracing the diversity that it has? Are the female employees provided female toilets? Is there a daycare system available for working mothers? Are female bosses attentively listened to just as much as the male ones? Are female employees of the same rank being paid a salary that is at par with their male counterparts? It is often said that “without inclusion, there’s a diversity backlash”. Most women opt out of these male-dominated fields because they are marginalised.

Women constitute more than 48 percent of the population. Of these, only 44.3 percent are literate. As per the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology, less than 10 percent of engineers and technologists are women. For other STEM fields, women constitute around 18 percent of manpower.

It is unfortunate that exact data doesn’t exist for this disparity. But rhetoric and facts alone can’t change the status quo. A great deal needs to be done to encourage more girls in science and math-related fields. This gap needs to be seen as an opportunity for the entire country to move forward. The time to act is now.

The writer is a structural and earthquake engineer, a PhD researcher and the founder and CEO of Women Engineers Pakistan.

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