For more women in science

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

In a laboratory in Bangalore college. - K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

In a laboratory in Bangalore college. - K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

There is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that a strong gender bias pervades institutions of science in India. A beginning to redress this has been made by the Ministries concerned.

THE under-representation of women in science, particularly at the senior levels of teaching and research in India, has become a serious cause of concern for women scientists and science policy planners. Although there is no explicit discrimination against women in enrolment and recruitment at the college, university or faculty levels, attitudinal biases against women and unsupportive institutional structures have over the years operated as powerful forces against talented women realising their full potential in the pursuit of productive and rewarding careers in science. Women in science comprise only a small percentage of the total number of working women in India; and in a society where women in the workforce face much graver forms of discrimination, the problems faced by this narrow category are in comparison small. The concerns of this group of women are, nevertheless, important not merely in the interests of fairness and gender equity within science. The images of women participating as equals on the cutting edge of scientific knowledge and inquiry can only but act as powerful spurs for the cause of women's equality in other spheres as well.

"Women have for various reasons been under-represented in science, in India and all over the world," C.N.R. Rao, Director, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, told Frontline. "They have the responsibilities of family and children and don't get facilities such as creches on campus, or the advantages of flexible working schedules to be able to return to work after breaks. In addition to adverse working conditions, there is the direct or indirect gender bias against women, the notion that `everything else being equal I would rather employ a man'. I believe we have to create better working conditions for women as a first step to fight this bias."

There is an overwhelming body of empirical and qualitative evidence to suggest that a strong gender bias pervades institutions of science in India. A beginning has been made by the Ministries concerned of the government to redress this. The most recent of these is the decision taken by the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, headed by C.N.R. Rao, to set up a National Task Force on Women in Science. The recognition of the problem and the push for changing the structures that perpetuate this imbalance have, however, come largely from below, from women scientists themselves. Several women scientists from leading Indian centres of science have taken time off their own work to research and campaign on these issues at academic and professional fora. For example, as part of a recent international conference held by the Third World Organisation for Women in Science (TWOWS) in Bangalore, entitled "Women's Impact on Science and Technology in the New Millennium", a special panel discussion on "Gender issues in Indian science" was held, at which participants highlighted some of the specific problems that women scientists in India faced in practising science, and suggested mechanisms whereby these could be addressed.

"The `leaky pipe' phenomenon actually begins much later in India than in the West," Rohini M. Godbole, a senior physicist at the Centre for Theoretical Studies at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and one of the two women members of the Indian Academy of Sciences, told Frontline. "In the West, the fraction of girl students entering science is small to begin with, and the leak factor increases as they rise in the science hierarchy. In India, the leak occurs much later, which gives cause for hope that this can be plugged. Women students are not in short supply at the under-graduate and post-graduate levels in science. I don't think there is a societal perception in India of women being incapable of intellectual attainment in science. Many of these university students do brilliantly and are gold medallists. Many of them also enter Ph.D programmes, but their numbers drop in faculty positions, and drop even more in higher faculty positions, in selection committees, and so on. In the IISc, for example, only 6 per cent of full professors are women." The problem, she says, lies in biases during hiring and societal pressures on women to take on the responsibilities of child-rearing and home-making. "Any woman scientist who has been successful has created her own support structures. To be a good scientist and a happy human being, a woman has to have extraordinary drive and a dose of luck. I am not clear that all men who make it in science have necessarily to have extraordinary drive."

The low average literacy rate for women in India is reflected in a relatively smaller number of girl schoolstudents entering higher education, and from amongst them, of girls entering the science stream. The total university enrolment of women in 2000-01 was around 84 lakhs ("Science Careers for Indian Women", 2004, a report brought out by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA). Currently, roughly one-third of university science students are women (see table). Very few of the Ph.D students, however, enter faculty positions. At the entry stage of a woman into a faculty position, "women's ambitions to pursue careers take a back seat... with women taking short or long breaks to attend to the `family's needs'", according to Vineeta Bal, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi (see "Women Scientists in India, Nowhere Near the Glass Ceiling"; Economic and Political Weekly, August 7, 2004). "In subsequent years, this would translate into having poorer professional achievements than men of the same age and basic qualification. So, when it comes to finding a permanent job after finishing post-doctoral training, fewer women scientists may try, and fewer may be able to compete successfully with men, for the same post."

According to Bal, the overall percentage of women faculty members in government-funded national institutes is in the range of 21 to 30 per cent. The proportion of senior faculty ranged between 7.7 and 25.3 in nine national institutes. In the biology and biology-related departments of four Central universities, the proportion of women faculty ranged from 10 to 12 per cent. The numbers of women decrease at the professor positions.

In Delhi University, of the 31 professors in the six life sciences departments, not one is a woman. In the three life sciences departments of the University of Hyderabad, only one of 17 professors is a woman.

The life sciences have a greater representation of women on the faculty than physics and engineering. Departments of physics at premier scientific institutes have a strikingly low representation of women (see table 2).

The under-representation of women becomes even sharper at the level of heads of departments, in scientific bodies, and in awards granted for meritorious research. For example, it was only in 2005 that a woman was appointed head of a national physics laboratory. There has been no woman president of the two national science academies, namely, the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Sciences. Of the 179 fellowships granted by the first, only three have gone to women, and of the 112 granted by the second, only two have gone to women. Only eight women have received the most prestigious Indian Science Award out of 333 awarded since 1958. Women are also under-represented on award-giving committees.

"The challenge of attracting and retaining good women scientists is even greater today when the Information Technology sector is pulling people out of science with the attractions of high salaries for less demanding work," Usha Vijayraghavan, Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology at the IISc, told Frontline. Her department has a woman chairperson, the first woman in any of the biology departments at the IISc. "Young women scientists need role models, they must see enough women succeeding in their fields. Women need to come into technical committees, peer review committees and so on. Unless there are sufficient women in the pipeline, women cannot occupy higher positions. So while there is no overt discrimination, the fact remains that science in India is being mostly done by men." Usha Vijayraghavan argues that institutional and societal constraints are equally responsible for this situation and that addressing it is particularly necessary in science, which is a demanding field not the least because it must keep abreast of global developments.

"I do believe that in India, in addition to social factors, there is discrimination against women that sometimes operates in subtle ways," Shobhana Narasimhan, Associate Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore, told Frontline. "I feel there are problems that women have with self-esteem, perhaps because they are constantly bombarded with negative feedback. Men who face adversity (for instance, lack of jobs, denial of promotions or rejection of their papers) more frequently get angry and blame the system. Women who face the same thing often blame themselves, and lose confidence in their abilities as scientists. Over many years of teaching students (both in the United States and in India), I see this pattern emerge very clearly. So, often, women who drop out feel that it is their decision to do so and that no one forced them, but I think they have indirectly been forced out by the way in which people treat them."

There are other problems in the work environment for science that women face. "From what I have observed, there appears to be very little or no informal space or forum for scientific discussion that is available to women as equal participants," Sumathi Surya, a physicist at the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore, told Frontline. "By `informal' I mean that it is outside of formal events like seminars and lectures, and outside of project-oriented collaborations. This is the space in which ideas are freely exchanged and scientific opinion is freely expressed. This is what is often considered a vital part of a healthy scientific working environment." Women often have to create these spaces through collaborations abroad or outside their immediate environments, she argues. In a paper submitted at a recent symposium on women and science in Bangalore, Sumathi Surya presented this constraint on women's participation in science.

Mechanical sciences constitute a field within the domain of science in which women are particularly under-represented. "In the 12 years that I have been here, we have had upward of 100 applications for jobs in my department, and only three or four have been from women. We do not have a single woman in our nine-member faculty," Prabhu Nott, Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the IISc, told Frontline. There are only four women faculty members in the Mechanical Sciences and allied departments of the institute. "One reason why so few women enter the Indian Institutes of Technology is that average middle class parents are not willing to incur the expense of putting their daughters through the IIT coaching classes that cost roughly Rs.50,000 a year, and which are today essential for any student to appear for the Joint Entrance Examination," he said. In recent years, it is a residential institution in Kota, Rajasthan, that has become the biggest and most successful JEE training centre in India. Would Indian parents be willing to send their school-going daughters to Kota for a year to train for the examination, asks Nott. "Roughly 7 to 8 per cent of the student body in the IITs are women, and their presence in faculties and professorial positions is miserable," Asha Gopinathan, a scientist currently working in Thiruvananthapuram, who graduated in chemistry from the IIT, Delhi, told Frontline. In a research study of the choices of high school girls in Kerala, Asha Gopinathan found that they opted for less prestigious engineering colleges.

The situation is changing, argues Rohini Godbole, although much more needs to be done to attract women to science and to retain them in the profession. The Department of Science and Technology has started a Women Scientists' Scheme, a three-year research and travel grant that is meant to encourage women scientists who have had a break in their careers to stay in their jobs. Six hundred fellowships have been awarded in the first three years of the scheme, an indication of the need that such a scheme fulfils. The Indian Academy of Sciences set up a committee to examine these issues and identify action plans to improve the participation of women in science. "If we want more women to be successful in science we need to create institutional structures - and positive attitudes, especially amongst men," said Rohini Godbole. These include good creches on campus, day-care centres for the elderly (whose care is usually the responsibility of women), preferential treatment for women in campus accommodation, paternity leave, flexibility in working schedules for women by allowing them long maternity and child care breaks and retaining their positions for them, jobs for both spouses in the same institution, counselling and mentoring services for aspiring women scientists, positions for women on selection and peer review committees, special coaching classes for women who wish to sit for the JEE, and most of all, creation of gender-sensitive mindsets.

There is a general aversion among most women scientists to the idea of quotas for women in faculty positions. Successful women in science have had to work hard, often fighting difficult personal battles to reach where they are, and therefore view quotas as a measure that may undervalue their merit and the struggles they have had to wage. "Rather than quotas, which may actually backfire on women, we could think in terms of creating a position for any woman who applies to an academic institution, provided she fulfils the academic qualifications," said Usha Vijayraghavan.

"Many women do not like the idea of quotas. We should instead have guidelines that must be passed by Parliament," C.N.R. Rao told Frontline. "These must lay down that, for a start, at least 15 to 20 per cent of all faculty positions in institutions must be filled by women. The Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister that I head has set up a National Task Force on Women in Science. It is not a bunch of men who should decide what is to be done, but women scientists themselves who must take action so that this imbalance is redressed."

The Indian state has a poor record of enforcing any kind of affirmative action in respect of women's rights. In this situation, the task of reversing discriminatory policies and attitudes that women in science face will not be easy. The pressure for change has to come from within the scientific community, not just from women but from all those who believe that the practice of science cannot be built on a foundation of iniquity.

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