Only 16 women scientists have won the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award since its inception in 1958. The award is the highest research award given to a scientist, under 45 years of age, for research carried out in India. This year’s awardees are all male. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which administers this award states that only “science is discussed when the advisory committee meets to discuss nominations”. The problem lies elsewhere.
We write from our experience of researching at India’s premier institutions and working at the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance — a partnership between the Wellcome Trust, a British charity and the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India — dedicated to supporting biomedical research in India. Women make up 37 per cent of PhDs in science but the percentage of women holding faculty positions in science research institutions is less than 15 per cent. There could be several reasons for this. For women, the childbearing age coincides with the age that requires the greatest dedication to the lab to establish oneself. Women also have to deal with the “two body problem”, whereby institutions do not give faculty jobs to both partners. This is slowly changing. Even then, many women in their 30s drop out of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) workforce. The base of the pyramid never becomes wide enough to support a peak — a phenomenon called “the leaky pipeline”.
During 2010-16, the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) elected about 230 fellows, of which only 30 were women. This is a global phenomenon. A 2013-14 survey of 69 science academies worldwide showed only 12 per cent of their members to be women. There is also a dearth of women in leadership positions as heads of research institutes or in higher decision-making committees. The low numbers of women researchers getting the Bhatnagar Award or fellowship of science academies is yet another consequence of the “leaky pipeline”.
Statistics at India Alliance also show evidence of this. So far, we have awarded 280 fellowships to researchers of the highest calibre and 31 per cent of our fellows are women. However, a close examination of numbers reveals a different picture. Fifty-one per cent of our early career fellows, scientists who have recently finished their PhD, are women. But for the intermediate and senior fellowships awarded to scientists to establish a new research programme or expand an already established research programme, there is a drastic drop — only 22 per cent of the awardees are women.
Real change requires a smaller effort across a larger population — a change in the mindset of the people. The male child who believes that girls are not good at maths (or science) will grow up to become the stalwart questioning the professional commitment of child-bearing women. Girls should not be told that being an engineer or a scientist will make them less appealing.
Young women researchers should know that they always have a choice. Leelavati’s Daughters, a book published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore (2007), chronicles the experiences of women scientists in India. It features many inspiring women who broke the glass ceiling to reach the top of Indian science. The ready availability of enlightened mentors, terribly inadequate in Indian science, would help young women just as much as they would young men.
Real change also requires policy to push it forward. Two things critical for a researcher today are a position with stability and funds for research, the latter coming as fixed tenure grants. Though India has increased maternity leave from 16 to 26 weeks, the effects of having a child on a woman’s career last much longer. This calls for increasing the time given to women researchers who have a child early in their career to apply for tenure. Typically, five to seven years from appointment are given to researchers to seek tenure; adding a year or two to this timeline for women with young children will empower them to succeed. Similarly, a full cost one-year extension should be given on research grants to women scientists who take maternity leave during the term of the grant.