There is no lack of talent in Pakistan. Then why is there an immense gender gap in professional S.T.E.M. fields?
This article was originally published in The News International, and has been only slightly modified here.
If your answer was, “Gender gap doesn’t exist! Don’t you see how many women are present in 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 11th. Unfortunately, for Pakistan the gender parity ranking in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (also referred to as S.T.E.M.) fields is at rock bottom. While it seems like there isn’t much to celebrate in that fact, one can look at it as a gigantic window of colossal opportunity. Weeding out the causes of this dearth of females in S.T.E.M. can give an insight into what can be changed to tip the scales.
Yes, it starts from childhood. Very early on, almost before birth, the girl child is ostensibly pushed towards dolls and plastic cooking sets, while the boy is gifted with toy cars, building blocks, board games, and fascinating robots that stimulate his spatial and analytical faculties way before the parents set their children out to gain formal education. As it happens, children are incredibly attached to their toys, and have been observed to grasp creativity as well as social skills from the games they play. A research by the Association of Psychological Science [i] in January 2015 found that children who frequently play with puzzles, construction, and board games tend to have better cognitive abilities. For the girl child, on the other hand, no conscious effort is made to cultivate interest towards toys that focus on math, science, and construction activities. Recurrently, this disinterest is conveniently attributed to biology 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% for girls [ii]. Maybe in Pakistan there is some variation to the trend of buying toys based on a child’s gender. As to the question of how much, the answer is currently open to disdainful speculation.
What’s interesting to note here though, is that in Pakistan, 8th grade girls outperformed boys in all subjects by quite a large margin [iii]! If indeed it was the case that a girl’s mind is naturally and inherently not built for technological conquests, the girls would not have scored more in the educational assessments. The question remains then, what changes after 8th grade? Why do girls lose interest in fields relating to engineering, technology, math, physics etc.?
In Pakistan, more girls can comfortably choose to study in a medical university simply because these institutes already have an significant number of girls studying there already. Also, the abundant representation of women as doctors and pediatricians in TV serials and commercials have – to some limit – successfully normalized the presence of a female medical practitioner. But there is severe lack of relatable role models for Pakistani girls within science and tech, and particularly within engineering. It’s not that exceptional Pakistani women in S.T.E.M. don’t exist, it’s just that we have failed to amplify their presence and have neglected their tremendous achievements. Pakistani women are pilots, engineers, and pioneers! But how much of their trailblazing triumphs is common knowledge? Recently, at the Lahore Science Mela the Women Engineers Pakistan booth received pronounced attention from school-going girls and their parents. What personally struck me was when one lady mentioned how just having seen female representation at the science fair gave her courage, and boosted her morale about her own intellectual and academic abilities. Inspired by the upward spike in her confidence, Women Engineers Pakistan is now running a month-long campaign to highlight Pakistani women role models, in hopes to encourage future generations of engineers, technologists, and scientists.
Personally, I have received hundreds of emails from young girls asking which engineering field is the most “suitable for girls”. Every time I get this question, I die a little bit inside. Upon further inquisition, I often find that the family elders are not sure if the particular field will be safe for their girl child to navigate. Truth be told, I do not blame them. I would be just as concerned knowing what I know about workplace harassment within the tech sectors. The argument remains though, that while most S.T.E.M. occupations are dependent only on mental aptitudes, I have met some awe-inspiring female engineers who work on site. The only difference was that their organizations actually made direct efforts to keenly foster welcoming climates with dignity. Organizations that take an active stand for making their workplaces safer, and more accommodating have been seen to retain more women in S.T.E.M. fields.
Other than this, there exist One Million Micro-aggressions! While workplace and sexual harassment laws [iv] are already in place in Pakistan, there is a lot of ground between when a discomfiting event occurs and when the law comes in action. These distressing events can range from measly lewd stares to sneering remarks. But micro-aggressions come in all sizes. Stereotyping, making snap judgements of capabilities based on gender, assuming good fit / bad fit for promotion based on the boss’s assumption of whether or not the woman employee would be culturally at ease. For example, I was recently told by a male professor that female faculty are not so commonly hired in engineering because they cannot stay back late, do not want to take outdoor sessions, and do not want physical work. Such ease of generalization by expert opinion of a narrative that is not one’s own only goes to show the abundant existence of implicit bias, or more correctly put, unexamined bias. (As an additional note; no employee – male or female – should be staying back late. If an employee is routinely working after hours, it only indicates that they’re not organized enough to do the work within the time that was initially allotted to them!)
Equal pay based on gender is not mandated by the Government of Pakistan, or any law within the country [v]. Also, while Article 27 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that, “No citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of any such appointment on the ground only of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth”, this law is only applicable to the public sector. No such provisions exist for private sector. This law also is also providing leeway to gender-based occupational segregation, as it goes on to say, “Provided further that, in the interest of the said service, specified posts or services may be reserved for members of either sex if such posts or services entail the performance of duties and functions which cannot be adequately performed by members of the other sex,” leaving one wondering that who gets to decide what can be adequately performed by whom.
From a birds-eye view, Pakistan is moving forward to gender parity (albeit on an extremely slow rate). There are many efforts going on to highlight the gender gap, and organizations are taking fresh strides to recruit and retain more skilled women. One thing that is repeatedly coming to front 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. Often social identity can make us appear different from others. Diversity is the “who and what”. It’s the headcount of who is at the table. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, involving one woman speaker at the panel of a tech conference, or having six female employees in a company of 10,000 workers is considered enough to be called a diverse atmosphere. What needs to be focused upon much more now is the concept of inclusion. Inclusion encircles the “how”. How is a S.T.E.M. organization embracing whatever diversity it has? Are the female employees provided with female toilets? Is there a day-care 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 equal to their male counterparts? It’s often said, “without inclusion, there’s a diversity backlash.” In my experience of working directly with women in S.T.E.M., most women opt out of these male-dominated fields because of prevalent marginalizing cultures.
Women in Pakistan make more than 48% of the population. Of these, only 44.3% are literate. As per the Pakistan Council for Science & Technology, less than 10% of engineers and technologists are women.[vi] For other S.T.E.M. fields, women make up around 18% of the manpower. It’s unfortunate that exact data does not exist for this disparity, as many schools and S.T.E.M. institutes are hesitant to share the true figures. But rhetoric and facts alone can’t change the status quo. A lot more needs to be done to encourage more girls in science and math-relevant fields. This gap can needs to be seen as an opportunity and a focus area for the entire country to move forward. The time to act is now.
For your reference:
[iii] National Education Assessment Test Report 2016
[iv] Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act of 2010
The author is a Structural and Earthquake Engineer by day, PhD researcher for structural fire-hazard resilience, and is the Founder & CEO of Women Engineers Pakistan, where she works on equipping more women towards STEM fields.