Women in Science

Many female students who choose Science in university and college do not become scientists, why?

ByScience Desk
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Women in Science
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By Shruti Muralidhar

Remembering the names of Indian scientists is a task for our citizens and it is worse with female scientists in India. As a woman and as a scientist, I feel strongly about this. There is a clear argument to be made: India has failed to promote the aspirations of its women scientists. So, to understand the problem better, let’s look at some numbers.

Among all the girl students who appeared for their Class 10th CBSE board exam in 2016, an impressive 96.36% of them were successful. In Class 12th this number remains at a high 88.58%. So, science education among girl students is not the problem.

Now, let’s move from competency in examinations to enrolment numbers. At the university level, 35.06% of women enroll in Science and allied courses—roughly equivalent to the number of women enrolling in Arts. Yet the percentage of women scientists in India is 14.3%.

This is to say that, more than half of the female students who chose Science in university, did not become scientists. And finally, while outstanding Indian scientists are elected to the fellowship of the Indian Academy of Sciences, only 7.9% of scientists in the Indian Academy of Science are women.

So, somewhere between university education and a professional career, we lose a large number of potential women scientists.

In a recent issue of Economic and Political Weekly, Geeta Chadha and Asha Achutan have defined an intersectional field called ‘Feminist Science Studies’. They collected autobiographical accounts of women scientists narrating the challenges they faced as they tried getting into academia.

Through the 1980s and 1990s female academic scholars were routinely put down by their male colleagues, other academics and their own families – a trend that has continued well into the present. Sumathi Rao, a theoretical physicist explains these circumstances in a recent EPW issue. Her work was constantly undervalued with insinuations that her husband, also a scientist in the same field, wrote her academic papers, on her behalf.

Rao explains the problem of how both unmarried and married women are viewed in Indian academic circles. An unmarried woman attracts the ‘wrong’ kind of attention—especially in male dominated fields, and is seldom taken seriously. The possibilities of traditionally married women finding an understanding partner and in-laws is bleak, Rao writes. Add childbearing into the mix and her professional scientific career ends, before it has a chance to begin.

Female graduates are also coerced into getting married. If already married, they are expected to bear children quickly.

Some women manage to balance both social and professional responsibilities by leveraging the advantages of the close-knit Indian family system. But for most women the pressure of an added responsibility and a critical loss of research time makes their return to academia difficult.

To add insult to injury, women are also discriminated against during recruitment for scientists’ positions, precisely because of these caveats.

But this can be changed by tackling the problem at multiple levels, both social and bureaucratic. Showcasing women academics who are in positions of power can inspire upcoming women scientists to stay in the field. This will also inspire girls and young women to take up Science as a career – a choice they didn’t know they had.

Additionally, instituting women career mentors for younger researchers can give them an outlet to discuss sensitive issues and exchange ideas to overcome common problems.

At the hiring level, a woman candidate should not be discriminated against simply because she is more likely to take a maternity leave or because she has children to care for. The first step towards remedying this situation is for institutions to recognize such an issue and offer high quality childcare services as well as flexible work timings.

Demanding this for every profession is not ‘anti-normal’ or ‘feminist’. It is a step forward towards achieving parity for women candidates in a male dominated field. With proper planning, even the most intensively experimental research can be accomplished without sacrificing maternity and childcare.

It is also important to address the deep-seated biases and insecurities of men, who occupy positions of power. Small changes in their behaviour and attitude can go a long way to keep women in academia.

It starts with equality. Give equal weights to the concerns of female scientists and increase their representation in decision-making. Learn to recognise sexual harassment tendencies in your own behaviour – it can be as simple as commenting on a female colleague’s clothes or as explicit as physical advances.

Institute an office with a female officer for addressing and preventing sexual harassment. Complaints lodged anonymously should be acted upon immediately acted upon and the perpetrator must be reprimanded or censured.

Finally, the imposter syndrome hits high achieving women much harder than it does men. Organisations should provide access to an occupational therapist or psychologist to deal with feelings of inadequacy among women professionals. All these are small yet positive steps towards making scientific academia inclusive and a safe place to work and grow in.

Until last year, I was someone who did not think deeply about the relationship between governmental policy and Science. I was comfortable limiting myself to purely scientific questions, while cocooned in the laboratory. But a catalysing interaction with a well-established Indian scientist convinced me to not only think deeper but also act on my convictions.

I began to realise that India’s scientific academia is stagnating in terms of output and inclusion, with obvious lacunae in high caliber basic research. There are many ways to improve this situation; one of these is to encourage equal participation of women in scientific research.

In the end, scientists are not robots without feelings. They are humans with real emotions, relationships, foibles and biases who have a difficult job. So, Science is just as much a reflection of the people in it, as the society is. Taking steps to include women at every step will not only boost Science in India, but also act as a positive feedback loop for all the women looking at academia as a career.

This article was crafted with the help of Navneet Vasistha and Abhishek Chari – core members of IndSciComm.

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