Indian Children's Books can bridge the gender gap in STEM

By Monika Sharma and Sreemoyee Bhattacharyya

New Delhi, Jun 10 (IANSlife): While there have been a good number of Indian women scientists changing the world with their radical work, all the names we hear in everyday conversations about science are a bandwagon of male scientists, Ramanujan, Jagdish Chandra Bose, etc. We do not hear about the first Indian woman doctor, Dr Anandibai Joshi, or even the extraordinary female botanist Janaki Ammal.

We believe children's books by representing women scientists can foster an early introduction to women scientists and by changing the public perception of who a scientist can be, increase the motivation in young girls to become one, bridging the gnawing gender gap. There have been some phenomenal children's books from Indian authors that tackle this gender divide in groundbreaking creative ways. An introduction to these books can help inspire young girls to feel confident to pursue the sciences. Youki Terada in her opinion piece writes that children's science books represent male scientists three times as much as female scientists. By making a conscious intentional change in these gender-biased representations, children's book authors can revolutionise the way young girls think about their potential to be STEM leaders.

A children's book titled 31 Fantastic Adventures in Science: Women Scientists of India, with the word "adventure" in its title, makes science seem like a fun challenge instead of a daunting inhibition. The book, written by Nandita Jayaraj and Aashmia Friedog, unravels stories about Indian women scientists who brought about radical progress in the field of science and technology, such as environmental biotechnology, particle physics, palaeobiology, astrophysics, and oncology. With her colourful illustrations, the illustrator of the book, Upasana Agarwal, tries to convey these scientists' personalities through the motifs and colour palettes she uses to depict them. Nandita Jayaraj, one of the book's authors, says they would like "to use this book as an opportunity to undertake more interactive sessions with children. It is as much about the science as it is about the people in it."

It is exactly this idea of capturing stories as much as the experiments that humanizes the sciences. The human stories inspire the girl children to write their own stories without following any societal conventions. This book aptly captures the science, and the stories of these scientists, thus encouraging young minds to realize the efforts behind these scientific endeavours and inspiring them to see how these could be their stories too. Aashmia, the other author of the book, says the book is essentially a feminist project, and undoubtedly so, considering its aim of removing the stigma in a girl child's mind -- that they are not capable enough to pursue the sciences. Another stellar book, She Can You Can: A-Z Book of Iconic Indian Women, is a timeless series of biographies, where a summary with an illustrative sketch represents each character A-Z. It highlights the achievements of pioneering women scientists, doctors, astronauts, and other stalwarts.

Pratham Books, a non-profit children's book publication house, has released the delightful book titled, Anna's Extraordinary Adventures with Weather, with lovely illustrations, about the Indian weather scientist Anna Mani who invented the Ozonesonde. For the unfamiliar, it is a balloon-borne instrument that measures ozone concentration at various altitudes and broadcasts the data by radio. The story, written by Nandita Jayaraj and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan, vibrantly depicts a little girl who wants to read about and study diamonds instead of wearing them, shattering conventional gender stereotypes Holding the book in her hands, the girl child feels inspired to do the same while reading it. The illustrations portray a time-lapse with a little girl bent over books and tools, transforming into a sari-clad scientist who would go on to study the weather and invent the Ozonesonde.

A research study on the meta-analysis of five decades of U.S. children drawing scientists was published in 2018. It was observed that in 1966 -77, only 1 percent of girls portrayed scientists as women when asked to draw a scientist. However, in 2016, this figure had increased significantly, with 58 percent of girls drawing women scientists. This radical improvement in the percentage reveals a significant shift in public perception of who a scientist can be, an image that isn't necessarily male and busts gender-related stereotyping.

From many of the earliest NASA scientists who were women and people of colour, whose stories could lead to intersectional feminist conversations, women scientists in India drastically challenged the idea of women being in the inner/private realms of society and men working in the public domains. Women can definitely do science, and in her feminist satire, Sultana's Dream, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain turns the tables of society, where the men are locked in the inner realms of society while the women are outside building revolutionary technology.

Children's books, we believe, can pave the way for more gender equity in the field of science as they would change the mindsets of young minds early on in the enculturation process. When girls see women as trailblazers in STEM fields at a young age, there is a high likelihood that they will become pioneers in STEM themselves as they grow up.



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