Women in India are operating heavy scientific instruments to study asteroid samples, rediscovering extinct species, tracking human health impacts of climate change, setting up scientific research-based multinational companies and much more. Yet, in his programme Mann Ki Baat to mark this year’s National Science Day, the Prime Minister mentioned 12 names-five were of legendary sages, one was not Indian (Thomas Alva Edison), and another had nothing to do with science (Sri Aurobindo). All of them have one thing in common. They are all deceased men.
As in most sectors in our unequal society, science too has an asymmetric representation of gender. There are very few women in faculty positions. Transgenders and intersex are unheard of. A large number of women sign up to study science — about 39 per cent of India’s undergraduates and 37 per cent of PhDs are female — but beyond this, the pipeline is leaky. While a majority of school and college teachers of science and math are female, only 10 to 12 per cent of faculty members in research institutes are women. This percentage drops as we look further up the hierarchy. None of the secretaries of the four major government agencies which fund basic research in various areas, i.e. Department of Science and Technology, Department of Biotechnology, Department of Earth Sciences and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, so far — with the one exception of Manju Sharma who served as DBT Secretary till 2004 — have been women. The All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) have had only one woman director each despite the large number of women in medicine.
Over the past two years, the authors of this piece travelled across the country to report on the work of women scientists and investigate the gender gap. The reasons are many and complex – some universal and several specific to India. It is clear that solutions to close the gender gap cannot be copy-pasted from ‘women in science’ movements that have gained momentum in the West. We need our own movement.
In our ‘labhopping’ investigations, we found that among the biggest contributors to the gender gap are sexism at hiring, a lack of support from families and institutions, sparse mentorship and counterproductive policies. But most concerning is a distinct lack of organised efforts or inclination by institutions to make science inclusive.
STILL AN OLD BOYS’ CLUB
Traditionally, Indian culture views science broadly under “knowledge”, a domain reserved for Brahmins, the intellectual sages and strictly male. In modern science, this has no meaning. However, it does seem that the pattern remains embedded in the Indian psyche. Science historian Abha Sur, in her book Dispersed Radiance, discusses this in detail, pointing out that scientists in India are overwhelmingly from the “upper castes”.
The power dynamic based on gender and caste is displayed clearly when the leadership of a scientific institution comes together to make any decision. It is visible in the Chancellor’s office at most Indian universities, in the list of science awardees and in panels (or ‘manels’, as most of them end up being). It is even visible in scientific conferences, which are important tools of the trade for streamlining scientific thought. There are instances where women’s professional opinions are sidelined. An excerpt from one of our reports:
The end of Dr Monika Panchani’s presentation signaled the beginning of the question and answer session. It started with the shaking heads of the two senior scientists, both male, chairing the scientific show-and-tell at Him Science Congress. They were both making the same point; they protested that relying on traditional knowledge for any conservation effort would be a “step backwards”. A discussion ensued between them, with Panchani trying to get a word in unsuccessfully. The five minutes reserved for Q&A with Panchani, an opportunity for her to defend her research, were hijacked.
Dr Monika Panchani is an ethnobiologist at Government College at Bassa, Himachal Pradesh. She was at the Him Science Congress 2017 in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, and was presenting her studies on the influence of local traditions in protecting the Great Himalayan National Park.
In a scientific environment under the context of Indian patriarchy that is blind to merits of inclusivity and equality, it is hard for women to get a word in. When asked to comment about leadership at Indian institutes during an interview for the lifeofscience.com in 2016, Kavita Shah, currently the only female Director at BHU, said, “Women should be given an equal platform to have their say. They cannot be just sitting in a crowd and totally unheard.” Many women scientists echo sentiments of frustration at this imbalance. Sandhya Visweswaraiah, senior biologist at IISc and recently elected fellow of The World Academy of Sciences, when asked to comment on the gender gap, said, “Unconsciously, I think there isn’t enough effort to ensure that there is good representation of women in higher administration in the country. There is still an old boys’ club. Very rarely do they think of a woman being able to do a job and I suspect it’s a mindset which may need to be changed.”
NOT A MATTER OF MERIT
The modern scientific method of inquiry came into India with the British, due to the empire’s concerns over not having enough nurses and doctors to overlook the colony’s public health. At this time, special amendments were needed at universities to incorporate women into higher education so they could medically treat other women – as it was improper for male doctors to treat women.
Since then Indian women in science have come a long way. Profiles of almost a 100 Indian women scientists on thelifeofscience.com declare that women are not deficient, in any measure, in any field of science. At Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, Kuljeet Marhas studies samples brought to Earth from asteroid return missions; Osmania University’s Bhargavi Srinivasulu led her team to rediscover a species of bat thought to be extinct; meanwhile, Nidhi Singh is hard at work in Banaras Hindu University – infamous for the way in which sexual harassment is dealt, tracking human health impacts of climate change. Relatively more well-known are examples like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Director of Biocon Limited.
Out of the six Infosys Prize Awardees of 2017, three were Indian women. “Prize winners are chosen based on the applications received and merits,” the all-male jury chairs of the Infosys Prize 2017 responded when asked to comment on their commitment to being gender-equal. This was the first such occurrence (for any high-profile science award in the country) in sharp contrast to the government’s top honour for scientists, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Awards which has gone to 517 men but only 16 women in over 50 years of its existence.
Award committees show scant commitment and responsibility towards equality. The “strictly merit-based” rhetoric is dished out spontaneously as soon as questions about gender are asked to the jury as if women scientists do not match the merit needed to win an award. The gender gap in science is real, yet the topic seems too hot to be touched.
In terms of intent to tackle the gap, Indian institutions can learn a lot from the likes of University of Vienna whose online job openings come with a footnote that women candidates will be preferred in lieu of the university’s “special emphasis on increasing the number of women in senior and in academic positions”.
Women scientists of India we’ve talked to agree with this approach. “All things being equal, they (hiring committees) should positively select a woman. That might not be happening,” said Visweswariah. She added that in awards selection and hiring, commitments to diversity are “affirmative action statements which I think would make a difference.” “But when the decision making is left to just men…[the outcomes might be the same],” she added.
With this scenario in mind, Indian women in science have proposed a number of innovative solutions to close the gender gap. Dr. Sandhya Koushika, a neurobiologist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, recommends measures to help women scientists make a smoother transition from being a postdoc to setting up to their own labs. “A training course in lab management and peer mentoring might be very helpful in providing ideas and ease with navigating old boys’ clubs,” she said.
All in all, there seems to be a consensus among the scientific community in India that there is a need to move beyond token efforts. “It isn’t enough that you have only one woman in a committee of 10 people. You need at least three. And only then will change happen. I don’t see that being a conscious effort on the part of institutions,” said Visveswariah.
(#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. You can read our reportage here)