An astrophysicist and a rocket scientist spell out what it takes to be a woman scientist in India

#GenderAnd Education: According to a 2015 study by Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia, the number of women in science has risen. At least 25 to 30 per cent of PhDs in science are done by women now.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi | Updated: June 8, 2017 1:41 pm
According to a 2015 study by Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia, the number of women in science has risen and now.

In 1993, Annaporni was the first woman professor to join the department of Physics and Astrophysics in Delhi University. “When I was told so, it made me feel very good. I also realised that I have to work harder now,” she says with a glint of pride in her eyes, sitting in her office. The number of women in the department has grown ever since but the gender gap still remains wide. At present, out of 44 members in the faculty of Delhi University’s Physics department, only eight are women.

According to the latest World Economic Forum report, only 14.3per cent of science researchers in India are women. India is worse than several West Asian countries like Bahrain where the proportion of women is way higher- at 41.3 per cent.

The idea, that women are too weak for science, has historical roots. Greek philosophers like Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen of the BC era put women lower in the social status attributing it to ‘their weaker physical nature’. This idea based around biological differences between sexes was carried to Darwinian evolutionary theory of the 19th century which propagated that women, unlike men, had not been able to evolve both physically and mentally. This was used to assess and decide the kind of work men and women were equipped to do.

At a recent conference at the United Nations headquarters on ‘Gender, Science and Sustainable Development: The Impact of Media,’ the participants acknowledged ‘the existence of a public perception of science being masculine, as noted by the image of a male, white scientist working isolated in a lab that is found to be predominant among children belonging to a wide age group. Interviews with women scientists show that an increase in the number of women in science has done nothing to break the image of science being a masculine subject, and has rather resulted in women making all efforts to take the place of the male in scientific fields.’

Annaporni is now 56. She is currently working on increasing the storage capacities of hard disks. Her research is on magnetism based memory material. She says, “Hard disks have limitations. We cannot go beyond certain GBs and TBs. I need to look at how we can reduce the size and improve the properties simultaneously.”

Her journey to being an astrophysics scientist may sound common but it is laced with very important observations as a woman. As a child who grew up in Madurai, only 25 percent of the girls in her class pursued science after class 10. A large majority opted for humanities. She points out a popular perception, “Women dont take up science after class 10 because there is a lot of maths involved in science.” At college level, the number of women taking up Physics reduced further. She says, “Physics is not a subject where you just go, attend classes and come back. You have to do a lot of lab work. It essentially means that till 5or 6 in the evening, you have to be in the college department. Doing lab work takes a long time. And a lot of families dont like that.” This is one of the key deterrents for young women to take up science for higher studies in India.

According to a 2015 study by Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia, the number of women in science has risen. At least 25 to 30 per cent of PhDs in science are done by women now. Yet, women in faculty positions only make up around 15 percent of the total.

One of the most quoted academic paper, ‘Women in Science: Why so few?’ by Alice Rossi written in 1964, noted that girls’ lack of interest in science has deeper cultural roots wherein, the kind of toys they are acquainted with or the kind of childhood education they receive, have a role to play.

“Even when my parents were extremely supportive, there was a lot of pressure on me to learn cooking and cleaning and simultaneously excel in academics. I started house cleaning at 15. At 20, I started cooking. Boys are never asked to do house work”, explains N. Ranjana, a scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organisation, an agency of the Indian defence Ministry charged with military’s research.

Ranjana is 48 and is currently working on clearing softwares for missiles and implementing software processes across DRDO. She recalls that as a college student many of her women classmates took up science for higher studies yet most of them did not continue in science. A large majority of them went on to pursue subjects like law. “When we were growing up the most common professions that women got into were medicine and teaching. Even engineering was not that common since it was considered a hard job. Two of my friends who went on to become doctors are now sitting at home.” Londa Schiebinger, a professor of History of Science in Stanford University, has noted in her several works including ‘Women in Science: Historical perspectives’, ‘even when girls and boys have equal amount of education in Maths and Science, teachers may not expect girls to perform as well in these subjects as is expected from boys. Women’s early experiences in school play a major role in inhibiting their choices.’

On 24 September 2014, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission entered the orbit of the red planet at the successful end of a 300-day space voyage. This mission by Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO) involved a number of women which broke several stereotypes around rocket scientists being a male territory. Yet, according to the website Quartz, women account for only 20 percent of ISRO’s total workforce of 14,246. It also never had a woman chairperson, out of the nine it has had, since its founding in 1963.

Similarly, at present, out of the 6,000 scientists at DRDO, only 1,174 are women. Ranjana is also a rocket scientist and most proud of being associated with the Agni missile project because of its national eminence. “It is one of the most complex projects I have been involved in. The complication arose from the fact that I did not just have to know my subject properly, but other subjects as well. In rocket science, too many technologies are involved and they all have to work in amalgam,” she says. The Agni missile project consisted of 500 people out of which only 50 were women. On this disparity, Ranjana says, “It was always based on competence. Whoever did the job best is given the job.”

Schiebinger, in her paper, underlines the inherent idea in the society that the home is a woman’s territory and the work in the labs and offices is the man’s world where she would have to try and fit into. ‘She writes, In order to understand women’s contributions to science, our definitions of science may need to be broadened.” She also sheds light on the works of, Christine de Pizan, author of the medieval era where she notes ‘as per Pizan, women’s contribution to domestic arts like the art of dyeing wool, grinding grains and so on, should also be made a part of the scientific spectrum, in order to truly wipe out gender differences in science.’

Both Annaporni and Ranjana believe that in a patriarchal society, family support plays a great role in encouraging or discouraging women interested in science.

Annaporni says, “When women are given work at a certain time, at that moment, if they come up with things like they have to go home, then the project managers don’t like it. Family support is important. A lot of them (women colleagues) have told me that their families feel there is no point in doing so much research, rather give tuitions and earn some money.”

Ranjana points out the tried and tested method to break even this discouragement.

She says, “The problem with Indian society is that it never lets a person’s natural talent develop. It is definitely harder for women to excel in science, but then again women themselves have to overcome social pressure in order to come out with flying colours.”

All of June, will put out special stories with a gender lens, each looking at these intersections critically to assess how gender sensitive/inclusive anything in India is. Help us find more such stories using #GenderAnd in your conversations. You can read our reportage, here.

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  1. R
    Jun 8, 2017 at 5:31 pm
    85 YEARS BACK MY MOTHER WAS A SCHOOL TEACHER (ENGLISH). THEN WHY NOT MY SISTERS AS AN ASTROPHYSICIST AND ROCKET SCIENTIST on TODAY. My family is of teacher father, doctor brother, teacher sister, an aeronautical engineer brother & me an engineer. My sincere love & respect to my sisters.
  2. S
    Shyamal Ganguly
    Jun 8, 2017 at 5:06 pm
    Why waste time thinking about the gap and worrying about the divisions. Men and women are equal in Military, health, education and government. The article adds no new knowledge.
  3. B
    BAPTY.s Seshasayee
    Jun 8, 2017 at 3:54 pm
    All these are unnecessarily made up news. Women of various age group are doing a great job in advance Science and technology and Space research. Best of luck to them to keep up their great work and patriotism. Thank u.
  4. G
    Jun 8, 2017 at 1:32 pm
    Very true.