Women and girls in science

We’re celebrating Women and Girls in Science Day on 11 February 2021, so check out these two stories of female science teachers and the women that inspired them into a life of science.

Swati Sohni, Head of Science, GEMS International School – Gurgaon, on how Kalpana Chawla, the first woman of Indian origin to go to space, inspired her to reach for the stars.

“The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.” This quote by Kalpana Chawla has changed my life. For me, Kalpana was an extraordinary woman – an inspiration – and she is my role model.

Kalpana was from the same state as me, Haryana, and seeing the news coverage of her first voyage to space in 1997 fascinated me. In that instant, she broke all manner of boundaries and inspired young Indian girls and women like myself to look to the stars.

Belonging to a small town, with a bag full of big dreams, Kalpana Chawla fought hard against the rules set by society to change her dreams into reality, and she died living out her passion. She is the best example for all those young women who want to pursue their dreams but who due to circumstances like society, parents, lack of confidence, a fear of failure are reluctant to follow them. Kalpana Chawla showed me how to rise above all that and achieve my dreams, and if I dare to dream then the sky is the limit.

I have faced disappointments in pursuing my career. When I failed to score good marks in my Class 10 board exams, I felt as if my entire world had fallen apart. I was not getting admission into the science stream. Throughout that time I used to read about Kalpana’s career. She was determined to become a flight engineer, and nothing on earth could convince her to choose another stream. I, too, was determined and intended to pursue my career in the medical stream regardless of my results, and so I promised myself not to lose hope. I worked hard to overcome that disappointment, and at the age of 21, I was ranked 43rd in The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – National Eligibility Test (CSIR UGC NET) Lectureship – Life science while pursuing my first-year postgraduate degree.

From being rejected and labelled ‘Unsuitable for Medical Stream’, to becoming a ‘Master Thought Provoker’ in the science category of a national-level competition, I’ve had to work hard, continually prove myself, and not lose sight of my goals.

I think that entrenched gender stereotypes and gender bias are driving girls away from pursuing careers in STEM-related fields. Women who choose to rise to the challenge and pursue a STEM career later face the prospect of unequal pay and restricted career progression. History is full of examples of female scientists whose significant contributions to scientific developments have been reduced to no more than a footnote, while their male colleagues receive Nobel Prizes.

As a science teacher, I have a responsibility to uplift all my students in the paths they choose, and to help future generations bridge the gender gap. I strive to inspire my girl students with outside-the-box thinking on technology in education, and provide a non-judgemental, accepting and a safe environment to experiment and innovate.

I encourage girls to participate in national and international projects. We participated in Climate Action Project 2020 and Microsoft Global Learning Connections 2020, which provided a platform to connect virtually with schools around the globe. Today, we are working on The Goals Project 2021.

I believe that providing my students with ample opportunities to explore and instilling Kalpana’s spirit of perseverance and courage in my students is my contribution towards bridging this gap.

When Daphne Vijayakumar, a biology teacher at Our Own English High School – Sharjah Girls, wanted to get into science, she didn’t have to look far for a role model.

Biology is in the blood: Daphne Vijayakumar (right), and her mother are both have a heart for science.

“I don’t remember when I realised that my mum was a science teacher, but from as far I can remember I knew she was a teacher, and this love for science was instilled in me from a young age. I grew up watching her patiently tend to her plants and pets – sometimes I felt as though she loved her fur babies more than her human ones. The first thing she would ask when she got home was if the dog had been fed. That is how much she loved them! So, it’s because of her that I have always loved nature and biology.

Mum made it interesting and got me thinking about the things around me. She made me love the subject. So, when I had to choose a career path I was adamant that I didn’t want engineering or anything else my peers chose. I hated maths – I still do. However, when it came to biology it was always so enthralling to learn about yourself and the things around you. This is certainly thanks to her influence. Hence, I went on to choose a career in biology and completed my doctorate.

I am very fortunate that I have never had to overcome any overt gender bias in my career, but STEM is still very male-dominated and I think only a small fraction of women choose to pursue a STEM career because of family choices, workplace discrimination, limited career advancement and lack of role models. We women see only a very small number of women going into STEM fields. An important characteristic of humans is that we tend to lean towards people who give the impression that they are like us; so we deduce that if someone like us can achieve in a field, then we can too. That’s why positive, successful STEM role models are vital, and why the lack of female role models in STEM fields means that women have less people to look up to, and therefore end up not pursuing this field.

I hope to be such a role model to my daughter, who has just turned four. She loves science just like her grandma and me. She loves it when I demonstrate science experiments for her and she squeals in excitement at the results. Being a biologist, I emphasise the importance of nature and animals. I make her watch Animal Planet and she gets engrossed in what she sees. Recently, during a video call with her extended family, my aunt told her that when she was a baby, a stork brought her to our home, and my daughter said: “No, I came from mummy’s tummy.” My aunt was surprised that a four-year-old was telling her that, but it was because I make a point to explain things to her in an age-appropriate way.

She still has a long way to go before chooses her career; however, I am sure she will grow up to love science.”