Some weeks before their Bengaluru-based science magazine would close, the writers of Lab Hopping, Ashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, received a lunch invite from their company HR on March 8, 2015. When they went up to the terrace where they ate every afternoon, they were served chips and samosas and other treats while their male colleagues were served the usual daily lunch. After the meal, when the women returned to their seats, they found gifts from HR—handbags with motifs of lipsticks, shopping, and other so-called feminine symbols.
Lab Hopping: A Journey to find India’s women in Science
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Not long after this unembarrassed show of tokenism, Dogra and Jayaraj, along with the rest of their colleagues, found they no longer had a job. But by then the two women, both with university degrees in science, had gathered a critical mass of annoyance and anger that would shape their careers in an independent and unusual direction where they would make an important contribution. Like many of the women scientists they write about, Dogra and Jayaraj had had enough of the sexist work culture in their workplace.
It was not just the cringey Women’s Day gesture. (After all, most HR departments in India function like tone-deaf relatives on a sugar high in family celebrations. That is what they are tasked to do, and they follow the memo.) Dogra and Jayaraj’s organisation was helmed by a “progressive” sounding man, a serial start-up entrepreneur. But the culture that prevailed in the office was that old familiar one where men, even fresh recruits, got exclusive, closed-door meetings with the boss and the many gifted and very young women on the team were not consulted on most things. “Ladies, please!” was the response to most disagreements.
The Life of Science project
When this steaming pile of chauvinism shut shop, Dogra and Jayaraj channelled their anger into setting up an original and genuinely ambitious website called The Life of Science in 2016. Here, you will find the kind of stories that are rarely told about science and scientists—a cancer biologist who lobbied her institution to set up a daycare centre for kids, a profile of a woman scientist at ISRO who helped launch India’s historic Mangalyan mission, a fern researcher whose lab is full of married women because she has no money and men would not work without stipends, a PhD student in conservation ecology speaking about the sexism she encounters from forest service officers on the field.
The story of science that we are taught in school is that of objectivity, of complete lack of bias, of controlled conditions where life does not intervene. This school textbook notion of science has long governed the media stories of scientific success. Of triumph after years of experiments failing, of scientists who care only for science and carry no bias, of geniuses whose work seems to be uninterrupted by the messiness of real life, of geniuses who are invariably male. One of the things that bothered Dogra and Jayaraj was the stereotypical image of the scientist—“an old, wild-haired man in a lab coat, shaking test tubes”—they came across in illustrations in their children’s magazine.
The Life of Science, a wonderful name that invokes the lived realities of science, was shaped directly by their experiences—both their formal experience of the stereotypes in the magazine and the unprofessional work culture they encountered. Right from the start, they decided to tell the stories of unusual women scientists in unusual places—the pteridologist or fern researcher at the Loyola Centre for Research and Innovation in Mangaluru, for instance—and not only the big names at the premier institutions such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai or the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru.
A breathtaking range of scientific work
This decision to cast the net wide offers a glimpse of the truly breathtaking range of scientific work under way in India—from the study of petrochemicals to mandarin oranges to space research to language cognition to the various properties of light—in handsome institutes of excellence, and desolate departments in State universities.
What is surprisingly similar across this diversity of scientific undertakings, Dogra and Jayaraj find, is the set of challenges that women face—the lack of toilets, the absence of childcare facilities at work, and the reluctance of families to permit their daughters to take up higher studies far from home. The number of women in the book who were told they could pursue science as their careers once they got married? Every other woman.
From the first year of the project, Dogra and Jayaraj received a great deal of press attention. Frankly, no one else had written like they had about the everyday realities of women scientists in India. The project’s crowdfunding efforts bore fruit, enabling them to continue the work over six years. Biocon founder Kiran Mazumdar Shaw offered them a writing grant.
Why do I write so much about the website in their book review? Because Lab Hopping is a distillation of the Life of Science project. It takes the stories from six “seasons” of the project, and organises them into chapters based on the main problems women face—sexual harassment, sexism, the distaste for reservation, the subcontinental dislike for protest. Within these chapters, we encounter stars like Gagandeep Kang and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and lesser-known scientists like Mayurika Lahiri, the cancer biologist who was among the first to succeed in setting up a daycare centre at her institution and V. Rama, an engineering college teacher at Warangal who secured a job through the quota for disabled students because of her polio-affected leg.
It is an interesting choice to give the same space in the book to the star scientists and the non-stars. It suggests that to the writers, the label “celebrity” does not put some scientists above others, and that is a genuinely difficult stance to pull off in trade publishing today. Commercial publishing puts a premium on “success stories” and “inspirational value” to readers. I say this from personal experience.
Would the book would been easier to read if it were divided into profiles of individual scientists rather thematic discussions? Perhaps. But Dogra and Jayraj have already done a book about 31 women scientists in India for Puffin, Penguin’s imprint for younger readers. This may have left them reluctant to repeat the structure here. But it leaves this book feeling more like a dilute website compendium than a book. In fact, the Life of Science website is structured along the stories of individual women, each story featuring a portrait of the scientist featured.
The book’s strengths are its solid research: in particular, the data furnished is ample and unambiguously sobering—24 to 30 per cent of PhDs in science in India are awarded to women, the Government of India has found, yet women make up only 18.5 per cent of employed scientists. When you look at premier institutes, it gets worse—women constitute only 11.2 per cent of the teaching staff at the IITs, a Government of India survey released in 2021 found.
More than anything else, the book’s calling card is its subject—women in science. In India, Dogra and Jayaraj can rightfully be called pioneers in the field. The subject of women in science is about four decades old, but this work has primarily concerned women in Europe and North America. The Life of Science in 2016 is among the first such mainstream projects in India.
Other books on Indian women scientists
This year, the researcher Savithri Preetha Nair has published Chromosome Woman, Nomad Scientist, a biography of the groundbreaking botanist E.K. Janaki Ammal who worked in universities and research institutions in the US, the UK, and India from the 1920s until her death in 1984. She is best known for her work in developing a genus of the brinjal that has been titled the “Janaki Brengal”, a sweeter variety of sugarcane suited for Indian agricultural conditions, and for co-authoring the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants withC.D. Darlington. In 1946, she became the first woman to hold a paid position at the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK.
To my mind, Nair’s is the first full-length biography of an Indian woman scientist. In 2021, the writer and journalist Kavitha Rao published Lady Doctors, the stories of six pioneering doctors, including Anandi Gopal Joshi and Kadambari Ganguly, both of whom are identified as the first Indian women graduates of medicine, depending on which part of the country you are in. As Rao says, who came first is not as important as the fact that all the women she profiled faced remarkable odds to qualify as doctors.
In 2020, journalist and filmmaker Minnie Vaid published ISRO’sMagnificent Women and their Flying Machines, inspired by the photographs of India’s Mars mission in 2014—women in silk saris, sporting bindis on their foreheads and jasmine garlands in their hair at ISRO, cheering their perfect launch of the satellite which entered Mars’ orbit in the first attempt itself.
In 2014-15, the Indian Academy of Sciences published a volume called Lilavati’s Daughters edited by the physicist Rohini Godbole and the interdisciplinary scientist Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, comprising profiles of prominent Indian women scientists. Sadly, the book does not seem to have found a wide readership. Nevertheless, it emerged as an initiative within academia, Women in Science, in the Indian Academy of Sciences, that started in 2003.
In fact, the interest in women in science reflects in the wider cultural moment. In 2019, the Hindi film Mission Mangal, starring Vidya Balan as the head of an ensemble cast, told the story of the Mars orbiter mission. It was a box-office success.
As I see it, the curiosity about women scientists is one chapter in the interest in the lives of women in India. The other chapter is women in sport. Have you noticed how many Hindi films since 2013 are biopics of women sports stars? It began more or less with Mary Kom in 2013, played by Priyanka Chopra. Since then, there have been films on the wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat (Dangal, 2016), the sharpshooters Chandro and Prakashi Tomar (Saand ki Aankh, 2019), the shuttler Saina Nehwal (Saina, 2021), and the cricketer Mithali Raj (Shabaash Mithu, 2022). The biopic of the bowler Jhulan Goswami, Chakda Express, is forthcoming. And this is only Hindi. There must be other films, in other languages.
“The stories of women in science and sport suggest breaking into male domains, and being the equals of men on their turf.”
Both science and sport imply male worlds. The first edition of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 did not permit women to participate. The history of the modern Olympics, indeed modern sport, is a history of slowly removing restrictions on women. The stories of women in science and sport suggest breaking into male domains. Being the equals of men on their turf.
Why now? Why this renewed resounding claim for equality so many years after our Independence, when women were given the vote, deemed the political equals of men? (Political equality does not guarantee social and cultural equality, but signals a move towards that.)
My answer is the winter of 2012 when Nirbhaya was brutally gang-raped inside a Delhi bus by six men. Her death shifted something in the public mind. One way to address the everyday misogyny in everything was to look at the lives of women more closely, tell their stories with more attention. Look where they have been unnoticed and unacknowledged. Tell them with care. Lab Hopping is one of the early and most focussed projects to do this. For this, it deserves admiration.
Sohini Chattopadhyay is a National Award-winning film critic and New India Foundation fellow. Her forthcoming book, to be published by HarperCollins, is a women’s history of India told through the lives of eight women athletes and one running school.