Coding Gender Equality Into India’s Jobs of Tomorrow

IBM's STEM For Girls program empowers thousands of young women in India to take their place in the tech-led workforce. 

By Nidhi Dutt and Joanna Gideon

Tejashwini, a ninth-grade student in Hyderabad, India, is aiming high. “Neil Armstrong was the first person who stepped on the moon,’’ she says.  “I want to be the first person on Mars’s moon.”

Her classmate, Dubba, is no less ambitious, even if her target is more down to earth. She wants to be a cardiologist. “The heart is the main organ of the body,’’ Dubba says. “We need to concentrate more on science.” MAHAPATRA/ASIAWORKS for IBM Tejashwini, a student in the STEM for Girls program, wants to be an astronaut.

Stoking Tejashwini's and Dubba’s dreams of science-based careers is the STEM for Girls program at the Freedom School in the Indian state of Telangana.  Started  a year ago this month as a collaboration between IBM and two nonprofit organizations—the Quest Alliance and the American India Foundation—STEM for Girls provides teacher training and a three-year science, technology, engineering and math curriculum for students in grades eight through 10.

The program will roll out in 10 Indian states and aims to involve 200,000 girls by 2022. Today, more than 60,000 girls across four states are already part of the program. 

India, of course, has a well-deserved global reputation for producing scientists, engineers and doctors. But in a nation of nearly 1.37 billion people, the requisite educational opportunities have not always been equally distributed around the country—especially for young women. 

STEM for Girls aims to improve the odds so that bright ambitious Indian girls like Tejashwini and Dubba have the educational foundation on which to build their careers, while also helping distribute the benefits of science and technology more evenly across India. MAHAPATRA/ASIAWORKS for IBM Manoj Balachandran, the executive who leads IBM’s Corporate Social Responsibility efforts in India and South Asia.

“It’s not just about reaching a student, but it’s also about how are you enabling the ecosystem,’’ says Manoj Balachandran, the executive who leads IBM’s Corporate Social Responsibility  efforts in India and South Asia. “The ecosystem is about teachers, parents and the communities who really play a big part—making sure they are facilitating a girl’s chance to  pursue STEM.”

Envisioning a STEM-Enabled Career

STEM for Girls is one of many programs around the world through which IBM is supporting diversity in a global workforce in which 80 percent of future jobs are expected to include  an element of STEM. The company’s efforts include support for P-TECH, Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools—which serves more than 100,000 students in 24 countries. MAHAPATRA/ASIAWORKS for IBM Anusha B, a STEM for Girls facilitator, visiting the Morarji Desai boarding school in Devanahalli, India.

For STEM for Girls’ field facilitators in India, the challenges include the frequent lack of basic classroom infrastructure like electricity, computers and projectors, and teachers without STEM backgrounds. But a big part of the job is helping Indian girls imagine a bigger, more progressive workforce that actually needs and wants them.

“Understanding STEM careers is a big challenge,’’ says Anusha B, a program facilitator in the southern state of Karnataka. “It’s very important to make them understand that STEM careers doesn’t just mean being a doctor or an engineer. STEM is everywhere.”

Opening Young Eyes to the Bigger Picture

While nearly all Indian girls are enrolled in kindergarten, by high school, their enrollment rates drop drastically.

Aakash Sethi, Quest Alliance’s CEO, says that STEM For Girls meets this issue head on. For many of the students, he said,  the program exposes them—often, for the first time in their lives—to the idea of "girls having greater agency and choice in the kind of careers they want to pursue, in their ability to negotiate the choices they have, in the dreams they have." MAHAPATRA/ASIAWORKS for IBM Sameera, a Quest Alliance state coordinator for STEM for Girls.

Sameera, a Quest Alliance state coordinator (who, like many Indians, is known by only a single name), said the program provides some important basics beyond STEM. 

“We talk about the global level, and going to get those new age jobs in Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality,’’ she says. “But what we forget is that for all of these jobs, we need very basic stuff—which is communicating right, being able to speak well, write well. And that’s what kids are starting to recognize because of the curriculum.”

Sanyukta Chaturvedi directs the Digital Equalizer program for the American India Foundation (AIF). Her group plans to engage 45,000 students in STEM for Girls in the northwestern states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. She said it is crucial to expose students to hands-on technology in classrooms. 

One popular tech tool is Scratch, a free programming language that enables students to create interactive stories, games and animations on classroom computers. Shailaja Ganesh, who teaches computer science  at Morarji Desai, a government-run girl’s boarding school in Devanahalli, in Karnataka state, said that for many of her students, Scratch is their first exposure to the possibilities of computing.

“They are from a village background,’’ Ganesh said, “so they can’t afford it and they don’t even have the idea to think of it.’’

Engaging the Entire Family 

STEM For Girls fieldworkers know that part of their job is to help persuade  students’ families of the program’s importance.  “We realize there are a lot of stereotypes that parents have of careers girls can pursue,” says Quest Alliance’s Sethi. ‘’The focus of our program is to change that mindset.”

Ganesh recalls a recent career day her school conducted to help bring parents into the long-term planning. “Students prepared their career charts on their own, and they shared their feelings about careers with their parents,’’ she says.  “Students are thinking about what I have to do to become a doctor or what I have to do from now to become an engineer, what kind of engineer am I going to be, or what kinds of colleges do I need to select.”

Parents who appreciate the opportunities STEM for Girls provides include Sadiqa Tasneem, whose daughter, Ameena, attends Government Girls High School, in Hoskote, Karnataka state. She is grateful that Ameena can participate in the STEM program. “For her career, it is very helpful.’’

Female Role Models

Balachandran, the IBM executive, says that 80 percent of the STEM for Girls facilitators are women, which reinforces the female point of view and demonstrates the important role women play in a diverse and rapidly changing skills-orientated workforce.

Ruhi Fatima, a Quest Alliance facilitator in Hyderabad, says the best way to reverse generations of psychological conditioning is to physically prove that something new and different is possible. MAHAPATRA/ASIAWORKS for IBM Ruhi Fatima, a Quest Alliance facilitator for STEM for Girls in Hyderabad, India.

“For these girls to even be able to take the first step is about confidence and this is what the project is doing,” she says. The mere fact that Fatima turns up week after week at Freedom School and the other schools in her territory helps reinforce a simple yet powerful message.

 “I ride a two wheeler,’’ says Fatima, referring to her motor scooter. “So they see me doing that and they’ll be like, ‘Even when I’m older, after 18, I will ride a motor scooter. And I’m also going to work like you.’”

For Tejashwinia, the aspiring astronaut at Freedom School, women like Ms. Fatima inspire confidence that she can do any work a man can do. “If they can, why can’t I?’’ Tejashwini says. 

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