by Vikram Upadhyay
I was lucky enough to be involved in ICTP’s Physics Without Frontiers (PWF) 5-day winter school program on particle physics this past January hosted at Tribhuvan University, Nepal. After graduating in Physics from the University of Chicago, I got to work at CERN on the ATLAS Experiment for a year, where I also got interested in some of the outstanding outreach work being done by science communities like PWF. PWF’s winter school’s final day was open to the public and included a panel discussion on the status of women in science in Nepal, which brought some interesting issues to the forefront.
It is a much seen phenomenon that women’s participation in the science faculties is lower in much of the world compared to men’s. We also see a trend of women and girls leaving the science fields as they climb up the higher education ladder. It would clearly be absurd to think that an entire gender is somehow innately less interested in any particular academic field. Environmental factors play a key role. For one, there are few women role models in the sciences. It is also a very common stereotype in some places that women are somehow just not smart enough for science. Growing up around such stereotypes surely can’t be good for a child’s self-confidence. Many girls drop-out because of low self-esteem, leading to fewer and fewer women graduates at higher levels. Their lower numbers in turn can implicitly make peers and professors think that women are somehow not interested enough or not good enough for science. This implicit bias can be hard to notice or admit, but it exists in our universities and our work places. These are just some of the issues common for women in science all around the world.
In Nepal’s context, many additional issues arise for women in science, leading to an even lower participation. It shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Nepal is a one of UN’s least developed countries (LDCs) and holds a patriarchal mindset. Nepal being agriculturally dependent and one of the least developed nations in the world means it hasn’t been able to provide many career options for science graduates. Because of lack of research institutions, and lower wages than for other careers, sciences in general are not preferred academic choices for most Nepalese. The phrase that gets thrown around here is “there’s no scope”, indicating a lack of opportunities for careers in science. Unemployment is a major issue in Nepal in general, and industry science jobs also barely exist. Teaching is the only obvious career option that graduates can realistically think of. And there being only 10 universities in Nepal, there are simply not enough positions to be filled, which are underpaid in the first place. All of this has led students to shy away from pure science fields, as they don’t translate well into careers here. In the midst of this, most intermediate level science graduates move to engineering and medical sectors as they provide better job security.