Windows in the ceiling

How to create an enabling environment for women in science

Written by Sujatha Ramdorai | Published:January 6, 2012 3:00 am

The economist and former president of Harvard University Lawrence Summers is (in)famous for the controversy he generated by suggesting that “innate differences” make women less capable than men of succeeding in maths and science. The aftermath of his statement,the rejoinders,responses and eventual recant,make for interesting reading. It is worthwhile to rephrase the question of whether women are “ready” for a career in science and research,to whether society is ready for women to pursue such careers,especially in an Indian context. “Enabling” and “empowering”,in India,are often confused with patronising and sympathising with — and this remains true for the narrative of women in science as well.

In the West,affirmative action has been entrenched for close to three decades now. Gender equity and diversity at the workplace are embedded in systems and hiring processes in a mostly unobtrusive and constructive way. The discourse is not on whether there is a “compromise on quality” in such practices,but on how best to administer such processes and ensure that actions translate into better enabling work environments at all levels,not just in the laboratory or departments or classrooms but in administration as well.

In my experience with teaching,especially at undergraduate levels,both in India and abroad,I have witnessed first-hand the tremendous sense of possibilities that women students experience in direct interactions with women professors and scientists. The power of role models and aspirations this can generate cannot be emphasised enough. A friend working for an NGO involved in taking science labs to rural and underprivileged children observed that many students,who earlier aspired to become truck drivers or postmen because of their limited exposure to possibilities and role models,spoke about becoming teachers or scientists or astronauts,after a very short period of involvement.

While it was heartening to hear Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dwell on the topic of women in science in his recent speech at the Indian Science Congress,it is to be recognised that a whole gamut of policy decisions and societal changes need to go hand in hand if we are to truly see a transformational change,with more women in science,academia and research in India.

In most science courses,both here and especially in the West,there are increasing numbers of women students. However,this does not translate into seeing more women at the scientific workplace,especially at higher levels. When I first went to Germany as a postdoctoral fellow,I was amazed to see the support structures in place at the university,towards creating a balanced work-life environment. Starting a family did not necessarily mean having to make a choice between careers! A simple but important support structure like professionally run childcare centres at the workplace can have an enormous impact. Additional enablers would be rationalised and flexible parental leave,counselling facilities,ensuring a safe working environment for women. Equally important is thinking of creative pathways that ensure that there are no barriers for lateral entry into academia at different stages in a woman’s life.

With funding drying up in the West,we are going to see larger numbers of people heading back to India and other countries where public funding in science is on the increase. Many couples in academia would like to work in the same city or institution. Time-sharing of positions for such cases is a possibility. Several universities in the West,which do not have the funds to create additional positions for such “two-body” problems,have come up with innovative solutions like allowing the couple to share a single university post if they can negotiate it convincingly with the respective departments.

While these steps are enablers via structures and actions,there is another crucial enabler that is more important and difficult to put in place. This has to do with mindsets within the academic community,policymakers and,of course,the larger society. It has to be dealt with at multiple levels. In a country where even a girl child’s safe birth into the world is not guaranteed,it is a gargantuan but achievable task to create awareness on the capabilities of women in areas like science and technology that have aspirational value. Many women students from smaller cities face opposition from their families in pursuing a scientific or academic career away from their hometowns. Institutions should have counselling sessions for parents in such cases.

At the level of policy-making,it is important to staff committees with gender and regional diversity so that different experiences and voices are heard. Within the academic community,it is important to embark on a honest and frank evaluation of the failures of the system. A telling example is the moving essay,“She was a star”,in the book Lilavati’s Daughters,where

S. Ranganathan speaks emotionally about his deceased wife,Darshan Ranganathan. He eloquently dwells on what a superb and prolific organic chemist she was,admitting she was far superior to him,but how difficult it was for her to find jobs despite her superiority,even as he clearly had no problem!

Within the community,women scientists,teachers and academicians can play an important role as mentors towards younger women. The importance of networking has to be recognised. In the West,there are organisations of women in various branches of science,who hold scientific seminars,workshops mainly aimed at women undergraduates. Special fellowships,especially travel grants,are exclusively devoted to women. These have gone a long way in addressing inequalities within the system. In India too,it will not be long before women become equal partners at all levels in the scientific quest,if there is thought and action put into implementing meaningful steps towards this goal.

The writer was professor of mathematics at TIFR till December,and is now professor at the University of British Columbia,Canada,express@expressindia.com

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