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Why we need more women in STEM Why is the "default" option for biomedical research to design drugs been male?

By Meera Kaul

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I was reading a science article in a popular magazine a few days ago, and I chanced upon a picture of a Conference on Physics held in 1927. It didn't come as a shock that there was only one woman in the photograph. Marie Curie. What's more upsetting -- it's been a 100 years hence and that paradigm may have varied, but not transformed.

My friend has a 7-year-old daughter who is clearly in an environment that promotes scientific thought and reason. She goes to a school that promotes science and technology, has highly educated parents who spend time with her in her educational and co-curricular pursuits. She goes to coding bootcamps, loves coding on scratch and plays Minecraft. She is bright, inquisitive and can already form arguments in a discussion. I absolutely love the lady she will become.

I also fear for her, however. Very soon, she will be amongst a handful of children with the acumen to do more advanced projects and she will find herself increasingly lonely in a group that is predominantly boys.

Unless we make dramatic changes in the way society, academicians, media and education is structured, this is a story that will continue ad infinitum. Women will keep narrowing their choices in life based more upon what their circumstances were, rather than their ability.

I do not know of any corporation that is not looking to hire or have a problem with hiring more women. The socio-economic and cultural choices the women make to steer themselves towards other vocations is a direct fall out of the fact that they would rather take the financial hit than work in highly competitive science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) fields. For them, a STEM career will require more commitment of time, open more frontiers of discrimination -- both sexual and otherwise – and long working hours would end impacting family time and stalling the decision to have children. In short, the price to pay to make themselves be taken seriously in an otherwise biased ecosystem is surely not worth the effort.

This is a sad reality. Women represent the single largest economic force in the world. They are half of the world's population, earn more college degrees than men; yet they do not professionally engage in high-end math-intensive fields such as computer science and engineering. But then why is the participation of women in STEM so imperative?

Until a few years ago, women with heart diseases were misdiagnosed with the symptoms they showed and were sent home with wrong medication, only to have a fatal ending. They would also suffer from high side effects from other medications as well. For generations, the model used in biomedical research to design drugs and products has been an average size male. Even the rats used in these experiments were male. It just failed to register that adding sex as a variable for tests could be a possibility, since women are physiologically quite different and need to administered different drugs and dosages. Until women themselves did not get involved in scientific and medical research, FDA and NIH had no reason to change the policies on medication.

Women's health is just one of the many important reasons for more women to be involved in science. Women participation in any scientific and technological process would increase the usage of the products and solutions being created and success of their application. Use of gender discipline in creating science and technology is an important aspect of unbiased successfulresearch or product development. Employing different perspectives and abilities can enrich the creativity and insight of products and increase the chances of pure innovation.

Studies conducted by Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and several other institutions have been congruent on the outcome that companies that employ more women consistently outperform their competitors consistently.

Despite being half of the internet users in the world, women fall behind on the computer science vocation involvement as well. The number of women engaging in computer science degrees is further decreasing. This is an alarming trend. We forget that a lot of what is being created by men coders and engineers will find a customer that is a woman. They are coding for smart homes, smart media, and internet of things devices, and smart cars but they are not involving the perspective of their most important user in the process. Unless women are involved in the product development process, there is a lot amiss for technology companies. They might end up with lean mean companies with high valuations, but they may not end up being valuable to the gender that uses the technology the most.

I believe that the paradigm for actualizing the root of the gender gap in STEM is directly related to global issues of gender bias such as economic marginalization (women lagging behind in economic opportunity and economic participation); political empowerment and participation; education quality; and empowerment opportunities. All of these issues require more men to step up and open doors both at homes and at workplaces for women to take their rightful place as partners to a more equitable world.

Women need to start believing in the fact that as more of us make our way to the top, more of us make the top. One woman at a time.

Meera Kaul

Founder, The Meera Kaul Foundation

Over the last two decades of her career, Meera Kaul has incubated, financed and promoted technology enabled ventures in US, Europe and the emerging markets of Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Meera has the unique experience of being a serial entrepreneur and an angel investor, along with the exposure of having worked in venture capital and private equity domains. She continues to be involved with several startups the world over as an investor, or in an advisory role and holds a striking track record of four multi-million dollar exits. Meera is also an investor in several Silicon Valley startups, the founder of technology publications and sits on the board of various cutting-edge hi-tech ventures globally.

A committed philanthropist, Meera is also the founder of The Meera Kaul Foundation, a not-for-profit that works towards addressing gender bias in workplaces and empowering women through skills training and capacity building.

Besides being an accomplished technology geek, Meera has a degree in International Taxation and Financial Law from TJSL, and is also an alumni of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. 

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