A new government policy that proposes to rank Indian institutes of science on the proportion of the women they employ must be heartily welcomed. Such an equity rating will measure the institutes on childcare facilities, but also the concrete opportunities they provide their women colleagues to become leaders. In doing so, the Department of Science and Technology signals a larger realisation that equality and gender parity cannot come without institutions actively seeking to create the conditions for it.
The odds have been stacked against the Indian woman scientist for a long while now. If she has managed to hold on to her interest in the face of endemic and widespread bias about girls in STEM and make it to college, her talent has inevitably run into more walls. In 2005, a government task force found that while the number of women entering university to study science has gone up by 30 per cent from the 1950s, they drop off just as they are about to enter teaching or pursue doctoral research. The reasons are not unknown — given the choice between nurturing a family and a career in research, women may end up choosing, or being compelled to choose, the “mommy track”. But it is also true that scientific institutions — like many other institutions — have not given much thought to re-designing their systems to accommodate talented women. The IITs, especially, are striking offenders, with a dismal record in employing women at the faculty level, though other institutions do not fare much better.
The pandemic has led to fears that the doubling of women’s labour at home, due to lack of childcare and the prolonged shutdown of schools, will force them out of jobs or professions, resulting in a setback by close to a decade. Academia is not an exception to this rule. But it has also underlined what feminist scholarship has argued for long — that productivity and merit of (male) professionals is shored up by the devalued domestic labour performed by women. It is not inevitable that academic excellence has to go hand in hand with systemic lack of equity. One way out is to adopt a policy redesign that puts the needs of women at the centre of the institutional agenda, and work around it, rather than force them to square their lives around the institute’s demands. Scientific institutions must recognise that not everyone flourishes on the “level-playing field” — and then find ways to correct this bias. The new policy is a right, and overdue, first step.