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Women's Day 2019: Indian science is inching towards #BalanceForBetter despite the none-too-easy path

In recent years, one of the more iconic images in Indian science are those of the women scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation’s mission control centre, cheering India’s successful injection of Mangalyaan spacecraft into the Mars orbit in 2014. Maybe under less dramatic circumstances, but in no less measure, are inspiring pictures of top Indian women scientists taking over the helms of organisations, or achieving success. In some cases, the images are from several decades back, when gender and feminism were not widely discussed.

But that is one part of the story.

"As many as 35 percent of the total Ph D awardees in science are women,” and yet, "the number of women on the faculty of institutions of learning and research as well as teaching is not commensurate with the fractions at the Ph D stage," points out the 2015 report on Women Scientists in India. It goes on to say that this drop in percentages is even starker as one goes up the ranks at all these institutions. The report was authored by Rohini Godbole, a physicist and professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Science and Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, a chemist and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

 Womens Day 2019: Indian science is inching towards #BalanceForBetter despite the none-too-easy path

Women at ISRO celebrating after the Mangalyaan mission success in 2014. AP

Women are an integral part of science and mathematics education in schools and colleges. Yet, the percentage of women on the faculty of high-profile institutes like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the IITs, or Indian Institute of Science (IISc) is just about 10-12 percent. Apart from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the percentage of women faculty is "woefully low", particularly at associate professors and higher levels, the report says.

"The situation is starker when one considers leadership positions such as Directors/Deans of these Institutes and/or membership of Advisory bodies of these Institutes."

And when it comes to sciences academies, the figures sink further – only 5 percent of fellowships in the Indian Academy of Sciences fellows are women, for example. The problem is global and not specific to India, with similar inequalities at the higher levels in the US and Europe.

That said, many bright young Indian women scientists are joining institutes and faculties, many returning after successful research stints abroad. Women scientists are slowly but steadily being recognized at highest level in terms of awards and top directorial positions, says Lipi Thukral, a computational biologist at the Institute of Integrative Genomics and Biology under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi.

Examples include Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology; Soumya Swaminathan who headed the Indian Council of Medical Research before moving on to the World Health Organization; Gagandeep Kang who heads the Translational Health Science and Health Institute, and N Kalaiselvi who was appointed director of CSIR’s Central Electro Chemical Research Institute (CECRI) in Karaikudi; and Tessy Thomas, director-general of aeronautical systems at Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and former project director for Agni-IV missile.

"In terms of awards, we still have to walk the long road, but the numbers have just started to appear. Till date, many women have been awarded the coveted Infosys Prize, which is quite refreshing," she says.

Half the Infosys Prize winners in 2017 were talented women in science, engineering and social sciences of different ages. Image: Infosys Prize

Half the Infosys Prize winners in 2017 were talented women in science, engineering and social sciences of different ages. Image: Infosys Prize

Indian women have excelled in various branches of science ranging from mathematics, medicine and life sciences, chemistry, physics, “but these have been isolated cases,” says Geetha Bali, Chief Scientific Officer, Cellspace Research Foundation; and former vice-chancellor of Karnataka State Women's University, Bijapur.

A large number of women in India are now engaged with information technology whose flexibility offers and the possibility of working from home. “At least two institutions namely ISRO and DRDO have nurtured the potential of women scientists and these institutions have seen women scientists occupy high positions as directors,” she adds.

The Department of Science & Technology too has pitched in with its Women Scientists scheme (WOS) to enable women scientists to return to labs after a maternity break and carry research at their choice of host institutions.

“Few decades back, this topic was considered a struggle of the times and swept under the carpet. Something has changed, as there is a lot of discussion around the theme, which is always forthcoming and welcoming! Hopefully, we continue to have positive developments around gender inclusion,” says Thukral.

There has been a tremendous advancement in the last 30 or 40 years, observes Sudipta Sengupta, who along with Aditi Pant were the first Indian women scientists to go to Antarctica, joining the 3rd Indian Antarctic expedition in 1983-84 and the 9th expedition in 1989-90.

“It was very unusual for Indian women to go for such mission," Sengupta recalls. "When we went there, many sceptics thought that we were just showpieces. But we proved them wrong. We shared all the expedition duties along with our male colleagues besides carrying out our own research."

There's more to such an expedition that strenuous schedules, the continent's hostile environment with sub-zero temperatures and fierce winds. There was also an emotional toll, which surfaced in the 1989 expedition when three geologists died in an accident. "It was a traumatic experience for me and I had to carry out all the work on my own. But again, with determination, I completed my job successfully, says Sengupta.

Sengupta, however, points out that while Indian women are shining in every branch of science, “these improvement reflects the progress of a selected section of women. Eighty percent of women still do not get a university education. So it is absolutely necessary to ensure education to all the girls for a better India.”

Also, despite the availability of programmes such as DST-WOS, many women scientists find it difficult to continue their work after marriage and children. Nearly half of the science graduates or those who completed Ph.D s do not always build a career, they say.

Immunologist Indira Nath, first and only Indian woman scientist to win the L’Oreal UNESCO’s ‘Women in Science (Asia Pacific)’ award for women scientists, however, points out that "despite the availability of fellowships which have definitely increased the opportunities for Indian women scientists, when we look at top positions we are not there yet. As you go higher up, the bias becomes evident"

Immunologist Indira Nath is one of India's most eminent scientists & researches leprosy. Image: Twitter

Immunologist Indira Nath is one of India's most eminent scientists & researches leprosy. Image: Twitter

And while programmes such DST-WOS do help women scientists, only 15-20 percent of them get regular jobs.

“Wherever recognition is by election or lobbying is needed, women stand less chance. We can see all science academies with male domination. Although women getting elected to these bodies is not impossible, they hardly play a pivotal role,” points out Bali.

Other challenges include a “poor system of peer evaluation that exists in India is against the interest of women. There is an unequal distribution of power and decision making positions between the two sexes. Scepticism about the performance of women under duress such as after childbirth, the possibility of giving up the job following marriage contribute for bias against women denying opportunities. Men changing jobs looking for greener pastures is not uncommon but this does not jeopardise them,” she adds.

"Clearly, a lot needs to be done to increase gender diversity in the scientific domain," agrees Thukral. "In the life science area, any given lab would have mostly correct ratios of gender i.e., the beginning phase of scientific career. As the phase progresses from the critical postdoc to faculty transition, the number drops to an abysmal level."

The reasons are "obvious", she says. "We are not providing enough support during the critical stage of women's life transitions, including childbirth. Harsh age limit is one of the factors where we can improve. Currently, most of the competitive fellowships and scientist and professor positions have an upper limit of 35 years, which may not be inviting even the most meritorious women in science. Secondly, the judging criteria are also not relaxed for women who took maternity leave, as she would be judged at par with other applicants in the pool for their progress towards completion of the fellowship."

Finally, says Thukral, an acknowledgement of the challenges faced by women from policymakers is half the battle won.

The author is a science journalist and writer.

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Updated Date: Mar 08, 2019 15:56:04 IST