Choice & Circumstance: STEM aspirations among adolescents in Gujarat

Anandi1, from Rapar in Kutch, of a pastoralist community, speaks of how girls in her village are not allowed to study further. Anandi has managed to convince her parents. Rani, who is in a similar situation, says her parents are angry with her choice. Lahi tells us that she has discussed pursuing computer learning with her parents. Bidiya from Junagadh, on the other hand, laments that girls from her caste are not encouraged to continue education. 

Anandi, Rani, Lahi, and Bidiya and many young adolescents like them face several barriers to access higher education and to choose subjects of their choice. Their challenges are marked and made acute by socio-cultural factors; their caste, class, and location. For instance, For Anandi from Kutch, the gender norms are worse than her counterparts in the tribal belt of South Gujarat. Each of the different region’s histories and cultures intersperses to determine the challenges and opportunities for young adolescent girls. Often several of them will face a backlash from parents for their choices. At other times, adolescent girls tend to believe the self-limiting beliefs they have heard regarding their abilities. 

Quest Alliance’s work in Gujarat under the IBM STEM for Girls program reaches 14,000 students in Gujarat and works to enable girls to break some of these shackles, encourage them to pursue their dreams, and strives to break gender stereotypes to enhance their agency and make informed career and life choices. As part of the program, to build on the experience from the field and to generate primary evidence to inform the program, we undertook research with 345 students (85% girls and 15% boys) in the government secondary schools of Gujarat across 15 districts2 to investigate young adolescents’ ability to choose subjects of study,  the barriers they face in employing these choices and the interventions required to empower them to exercise these choices. 

Despite gains in higher education for women, research shows a clustering of women in particular sectors like health care and assistance, nursing, and clerical jobs3. The highest gaps are in engineering and technology accounting for only 10-20% female participation4.  According to AISHE5, The Engineering and technology enrolments for 2018-19 are 71.1 percent male and 29.9 percent female. It is partly because the nature of subjects is already determined to be gendered, with STEM subjects specifically considered to be masculine. These gaps, if not addressed, run the risk of further exclusion of women in a workplace where trends in the future of work suggest the highest increase of jobs in the technology sector. 8 out of the 10 fastest-growing jobs are in the technology sector6. Additionally, our recent research study7 “STEM Mindset, Careers and Women” shows that STEM skills and mindsets are essential requirements across sectors. Against this, considering that math, science, and technology are emerging as top skills required across careers now and in the future, we must examine two critical queries: where and how do young women enter an increasingly STEM-oriented economy? What amounts to true choice, and are young women able to employ it? 

An empowered choice should include a critical understanding of one’s own beliefs, the infrastructure to enable these choices – instead of adaptive preferences – and the agency given to adolescents to employ this choice. Against this, in Gujarat, we find that several factors contribute to adolescent decisions. 

Geography Matters. So does Infrastructure.
Nearly 62% of respondents base their decisions on education on the proximity of schools to their homes. Additionally, teacher availability, capability to grasp a subject and context, ability to manage classwork and housework, as well as job prospects are key elements that determine subject choices among secondary school students in Gujarat. Interestingly, the tribal belt of South Gujarat(1) showed the highest uptake for Science subjects, despite being one of the state’s poorer regions. This could suggest that economic conditions can only be marginally relevant, while gender, space for autonomy, and infrastructure hold greater value toward making subject matter choices. We also noted that students from districts considered under North and Central Gujarat were more focused on self-related outcomes (“I will find job satisfaction”) whereas students in Southern Gujarat were seen to place a higher value on social outcomes (“My family’s social status will improve”). 

Career Pathway Information is Critical
One key finding of the study was the information gap regarding Science careers. Many students have little to no knowledge of potential career choices available to them. Many of them do not pursue science subjects (even if they are initially inclined to do so) due to a false belief that jobs in the science stream are few and far between. 

Relevance of Growth Mindsets
Ability-based biases were seen to be predominant among most students. The belief that only “intelligent” students can take up science and math is prevalent amongst adolescents, with nearly 70% of students admitting to the belief that one’s intelligence determines their math and science abilities. Close to 55% of students believe that an “innate ability” in these subjects cannot be changed. Both boys and girls were found to hold these fixed, limiting beliefs about who can succeed, based on ability, as well as exam scores. However, girls scored worse than boys. 

Gender is a key mediator of choice
The study found gender norms and gender stereotypes play a key role in decision-making among young adolescents. Nearly 37% of the adolescents believed in gendered notions of subjects that  ‘Men are better than women at Science and Math’ thus limiting their choices based on the internalisation of limiting beliefs. Gender norms play a significant role as well. We find that equitable distribution of household work may improve the chances of girls choosing Science. For instance, As noted earlier, the ability to manage housework and schoolwork was a key concern for all students. However, for students choosing Science; this does not emerge in the first three factors influencing decisions. For instance, in districts under Saurashtra regions and Kutch and Morbi region, reasons such as having enough time in classwork and housework (for over 50% of the sample) are prominent determinants for subject choice as opposed to less than 30% in districts considered under Central/North and South Gujarat where Science is preferred more prominently.

The importance of relatable role models and negotiation to employ choice
Our study also found that negotiation is one of the key methods through which girls employ choice. Students use role model examples to convince parents of their career choices, with more favourable opinions towards achievers from one’s community, village, or town. Negotiation was observed to work best for adolescents when parents and students shared an understanding of the possibilities of choosing their desired stream. We find that having relatable role models makes a considerable difference.

Multi-stakeholder model essential 
An adolescent’s socio-cultural landscape strongly influences the choices he/she makes regarding their studies and careers. Our focused study, as well as continuous interventions in the sector, show that multiple actions are required to make a positive impact on an adolescent’s choice and decision-making. Firstly, evidence-based approaches must be used to understand the nuances of regions and geographies. Further, since the choices an adolescent makes are situated amidst family, school, and societal structures, engagement with multiple stakeholders allows for more impactful shared experiences. Second, Gender – related interventions must be addressed also towards boys. The evidence from our research points significantly to the fact that girls fare much better on gender awareness issues. 

Bringing girls to a place of power will need interventions to address these challenges. These will include understanding the location-specific challenges of the adolescent, addressing self-limiting beliefs towards STEM subjects and careers, addressing the paucity of knowledge in relation to career-thinking and potential career pathways that are available, introducing relatable role models, and engaging with parents and community towards better gender norms. 

Written by:
Priyanka Krishna
Research Specialist, Quest Alliance

 (1) All names are anonymised
(2)   Districts considered for the study: Ahmedabad, Banaskantha, Mehsana (clubbed under North and Central Gujarat). Jamnagar, Botad, Surendranagar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Junagadh (clubbed under Sourashtra regions), Kutch and Morbi, and Narmada, Surat, Dang, Chota Udepur (clubbed as South for purpose of study to gain implementation specific details)
(3) https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/the-future-of-women-at-work-transitions-in-the-age-of-automation
(4)  http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/science-technology/engineering/women-in-engineering/
(5)   http://aishe.nic.in/aishe/reports
(6)  Emerging Jobs: India, The fastest growing jobs in the country, LinkedIn, September 2018.
(7) https://www.questalliance.net/our-publications

Building STEM Mindsets For The Future

While new technologies increasingly change the landscape of work and learning, new skills like creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and digital fluency become vital. The future of work is anchored by technology, and yet, women continue to lag behind men with regard to their access to technology, the skills to use it, and their employment in tech or related industries.

STEM in traditional terms is defined as Science, Technology, Engineering, Math — a group of subjects taught in silos in our existing school system. There is a need to move beyond this siloed approach and look at STEM as a mindset important to build 21st century skills and prepare young people for the future.

Continue reading “Building STEM Mindsets For The Future”