How Can We Improve the Prospects of India’s Women in STEM?

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The Science Policy Forum has been conducting a series of panel discussions entitled ‘STIP 2020: Across the Table’, to collect public and expert opinions to formulate a new Science Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP). Of the 17 thematic groups, ‘Equity and Inclusion’ – held on June 30 – dealt with the issues of under-representation of women and other minority groups in Indian science.

This discussion was conducted with five panelists – three women and two men – and started off with a small audience of around 40, and which dwindled to the 20s.

Equity in Indian science has been a popular topic of discussion for a while now. In any case, the STIP session on ‘Equity and Inclusion’ was required at this point since the government is yet to implement concrete changes to improve the number and experience of Indian women in academia. However, the audience metrics made for a discouraging start – compounded by a slew of technical glitches that made the discussion hard to join or follow.

More importantly, given the discussion’s public-facing nature, we expected a large fraction of the panelists’ time to be devoted to addressing questions from the public. However, talks by and discussions among the panel members consumed most of the time. Ultimately, the panel fell short of its goals to interactively collate and discuss public and expert opinions. The final outcomes were primarily restatements of the problems Indian women in science face, plus a few concrete steps suggested by one panel member, Prof Rohini Godbole.

Women scientists are routinely penalised and excluded from professions for choosing to start families. As a result, they are often not promoted to leadership positions, creating a shortage of senior women professionals and scientists who can mentor early-career academics. Implicit biases against women in academia are still common. While the enrolment of female students across science PhDs is around 37%, our recent survey of women professors at leading institutes across the country revealed a base rate of 10.5% (calculated by independent verification as part of BiasWatchIndia).

Standing on the shoulders of giants such as Prof Godbole and using numerous previous reports, we attempted to distill and list the most important policy and systemic changes required to fully use the enormous potential of India’s women in science. Our memo includes recommendations across divisions of training and expertise, ranging from the graduate level to late-career women scientists.

The most important and time-sensitive recommendations are for advanced degree holders and early career women scientists, since those are the levels at which the attrition rates are highest for women science professionals in India.

Some policy recommendations that can have the most impact in the current situation follow.

A. Support for postgraduate and advanced degree holders to stay in science

1. Abolish ageism – Most early-career grants/positions require candidates to be below 35/40. This limitation needlessly penalises any career paths that don’t follow default, traditional models originally built to facilitate men’s careers at the expense of women’s.

2. Institute stable mentorships and support networks in each organisation – Early-career women need guidance and mentorship from established academics in the field, especially women academics

B. Support for early and mid-career scientists

1. Mandate the creation of an ‘Office for Equity and Inclusion’ in every institution – These will act as hubs to connect all women in the institution and nucleate stable mentorships and support networks

2. Don’t penalise childbirth or families – Provide adequate parental leave for both men and women. Account for childbirth in grant decisions and offer extensions when necessary.

3. Institute tenure clock extension policies for women who need it due to childbirth – This will ensure a level playing field for women scientists to reach important career milestones, such as tenure and promotion

4. Ensure at least 30% women scientists are included on all panels – Especially those that are related to career drives, recruitments, budget proposals and promotion to tenure. The active presence of women on such panels will provide much needed support to and understanding of decision-making.

5. Set up a day-care centre on campus – Childcare is not solely the mother’s  responsibility. Providing childcare options on the academic campus can alleviate a major point of stress for new parents, especially women scientists who are new mothers.

6. Be mindful of schedules of young parents (men and women) – Don’t penalise young parents or faculty members with family responsibilities by conducting official meetings beyond working hours

C. Support for late-career scientists

1. Promote and encourage long-term mentor-mentee relationships – Women scientists should be supported with good guidance and mentorship that can lead them through consistently successful careers. Long term, negative social biases must be mitigated with strong institutional policies.

2. Prioritise including experienced women scientists’ voices in academy-, department- and government-level decisions – Having women’s voices be heard will bring much needed diversity of thought and foster creative solutions to difficult problems

3. Promote career-furthering activities such as sabbaticals – Academic sabbaticals can help catalyse new directions and collaborations. Women academics generally hesitate to take sabbaticals due to societal pressures that require them to stay at home and take care of their families.

D. Establish and regularly conduct gender sensitisation workshops for staff and faculty members at all levels – Effectively challenging and changing generations’ worth of ingrained sexism is difficult. Therefore, regular training and workshops should be necessary for all staff and faculty members to initiate and maintain appropriate behaviour and attitudes.

None of our recommendations is intrinsically new. They have been enunciated and explained in multiple expert reports researched, collated and published over the years (examples hereherehere and here). However, many of these reports currently languish on the websites of Indian scientific societies; they are not showcased and often not even searchable.

Given that STIP 2020 discussions are currently underway, it might be useful to not reinvent the wheel but instead rediscover and highlight relevant recommendations that have already been made – but not yet considered by the right people in government. And we hope such recommendations will be taken seriously and implemented as soon as possible.

It’s not a trivial matter that half of our country’s scientific workforce is incapacitated by poor planning, knee-jerk decision-making, institutional inertia and deep-rooted misogyny. Effective implementation of progressive policies is the only thing that can put Indian science and academia on a path to a more inclusive and equitable future.

This article was first published on The Wire Science on 17th July 2020

Shruti Muralidhar is a neuroscientist at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a founding member and contributing editor at IndSciComm.

Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan is an assistant professor, EMBO Young Investigator and WT/DBT-India Alliance Intermediate Fellow at the Centre for BioSystems Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

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