Women in Science

It is difficult enough for any Indian citizen to remember the name of a male Indian scientist. But how many of them know the name of a female Indian scientist?  As a woman and as a scientist, I have strong feelings about this. There is a clear argument to be made that India, like many other countries, has catastrophically neglected to promote the scientific aspirations of its women. Let’s look at some numbers to better understand where the problem might be.

In 2016, female students in the Class 10th exams of the CBSE had a pass percentage of 96.36%. Moving to Class 12th, female students in the science stream had a pass percentage of 88.58%. So, science education among girl students is not the problem. Now, let’s move from competency in examinations to number of people. At university level education, 35.06% of women enroll in science and allied courses, which is roughly equivalent to the number of women enrolling in Arts. But, moving forward, the percentage of women scientists in India is a meagre 14.3%. This is the major leak in the pipeline – many female students who chose science in university and college clearly do not choose to become scientists. And finally, while outstanding Indian scientists are elected to the fellowship of the Indian Academy of Sciences, only 7.9% of scientists in the Indian Academy of Science are women.

So, somewhere between university education and professional scientists, qualified women fall through the cracks. They do not get a chance to realize their potential and contribute scientifically. This problem can be influenced by social as well as bureaucratic factors. Despite the contrary, administrative changes are actually the easiest to conceive and implement. More important and more difficult are the deep-seated biases and insecurities of men in positions of power.

The major drop in numbers comes at a sensitive time point in a woman’s life. Female graduates are coerced by their family to consider getting married. If already married, they are expected to quickly bear children. In a recent issue of Economic and Political Weekly, Geeta Chadha and Asha Achutan have defined an intersectional field called ‘Feminist Science Studies’. As part of this endeavour they have collected autobiographical accounts of women scientists today and the discriminations they faced as they tried getting into academia. Articles written by Jayashree Subramanian and Sumathi Rao highlight the pernicious biases faced by female academic scholars in the 1980s and 1990s. They were routinely put down by male colleagues, other academics and even their own family members. Sumathi Rao’s work was constantly undervalued with insinuations that her husband, also a scientist in the same field, wrote her papers for her. Dr. Rao elegantly explains the problem of how both unmarried and married women are viewed in Indian academic circles. An unmarried woman attracts the ‘wrong’ kind of attention, especially in male dominated fields, and is frequently not taken seriously enough. A woman getting married in the traditional indian way encounters fewer possibilities of an understanding partner and in-laws. Add the pressure of childbearing into the mix and her professional scientific career has ended even before it had a chance to begin. Some women manage to handle both social and professional responsibilities by using the advantages of the close-knit Indian family system. But for most women – the pressure, added responsibility and a critical loss of research time – makes it difficult to return to academia. To add insult to injury, women are usually discriminated against, when hiring for scientist positions, precisely because of all these caveats.

But this can change by tackling the problem at multiple levels. Showcasing women academics in positions of power can inspire upcoming women scientists to take a step forward and stay in the field, rather than leave. More importantly, this inspires girls and young women to take up science as a career – a choice they might never have thought they had. Instituting women career mentors for younger researchers can give them the outlet to discuss sensitive issues and exchange advice to overcome common problems.

At the hiring level, a woman candidate should not be discriminated against simply because she is more likely to take maternity leave and/or she has children to take care of. The most effective solution is for the institution to recognize such an issue and offer high quality childcare services and flexible work timings to accommodate for changes in work schedules. Demanding this for every profession is not ‘anti-normal’ or ‘feminist’. It is an obvious step forward to achieve parity for women candidates, especially in a male dominated field. With care and proper planning, even the most intensively experimental research can be accomplished without sacrificing maternity and childcare.

Small changes in the behavior and attitude of male colleagues can go a long way to keep women in academia. It starts with equality. Give equal weights to the concerns of female scientists and increase their representation in decision making. Their opinion is just as valuable as any other colleagues’. Don’t talk down’ to women peers. They probably got there with a lot of hard work and sacrifices that might be difficult for a man to imagine. Sexual harassment can be both implicit and explicit. Learn to recognize these signs in your own behaviour. It can be as simple as commenting on a female colleague’s clothes or as explicit as physical advances. Institute an office with a female officer for addressing and preventing sexual harassment.  Complaints lodged anonymously are not to be filed away for later action. They must be immediately acted upon and the perpetrator must be reprimanded or censured. And finally, the imposter syndrome hits high achieving women much harder than it does men. Providing access to an occupational therapist or psychologist to deal with feelings of inadequacy go a long way in making women professionals feel assured. All these are small yet positive steps towards making scientific academia inclusive to women, as a safe place work and grow.

Until last year, I was someone who did not think deeply about the relationship between governmental policy and science. I was comfortable asking purely scientific questions, while cocooned in the laboratory scientist’s world of daily experiments, statistics. and grant application deadlines. But a catalysing interaction with a well established Indian scientist, convinced me to, not only think deeper but also, act on my convictions. I began to realise that India’s scientific academia is stagnating in terms of output and inclusion, with obvious lacunae in high caliber basic research. There are many ways to improve this situation, not the least of which is to encourage equal participation of women in scientific research.

In the end, scientists are not robots without feelings. They are humans with real emotions, relationships, foibles and biases who have a difficult job. So, science is just as much a reflection of the people in it, as society is. Taking steps to include women at every step will not only boost Indian science in the present, but also act as a positive feedback loop for all the women looking at academic science as a career. This can only happen if the process of science is not hampered by divisive attitudes.

A modified version of this article was featured as part of the Science Desk at Newslaundry

This article was crafted with the help of Navneet Vasistha and Abhishek Chari – core members of IndSciComm.


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