What happened to our women scientists?

When Donna Strickland, along with two others, was awarded the physics Nobel in 2018, the fact that she was the first woman physicist to win the prize in 55 years, stood out. Strickland’s Nobel shone the spotlight on women in science, a field still dominated by men, who remain unsung as they continue to do pioneering work in labs across the globe. But, there is a growing concern over women opting out of science at senior levels that coincides with motherhood in most cases.

With its own unique challenges, India, too, is feeling the pinch. Women outnumbered men in enrolling for masters courses in mathematics (61.2%), engineering (61.2%) and medicine (57.1%), data for 2017-18 shows. The number of women signing up for a doctorate was 45% higher during the same period than those in Western countries.

What happened to our women scientists?

Despite higher education, more women are taking the backseat. Image credit: Shatakshi Mehra

Data is not available for the women who complete their PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, together known as STEM disciplines, but it is safe to assume that a significant number do not continue once they have their degrees due to various reasons. The leaky pipeline of women in these disciplines is after they have achieved the highest level of training, at the doctoral level.

It is reflected in the number of women in the faculty or decision-making positions in the country’s top schools. Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore has more than 450 faculty members, but only nine per cent of them are women. The number is slightly higher at 12.7% for Indian Institutes of Technology.

At Indian Academy of Sciences, only 90 women are fellows, accounting for just eight percent of the total fellows. Numbers are almost similar for Indian National Science Academy, where only eight percent, or 78, women are fellows. National Academy of Science has 136 women as fellows, just nine percent of the total strength.

The question of women and science is not just a problem of scientists alone. The changes are social and have a political, economic and cultural context. As a growing economy that has global ambitions, India needs its scientists to meet its technological, developmental and knowledge needs.

The country also needs to understand the nuances of the changing trajectories of formal work spaces in science and engineering and to capture the stories of women as they respond to a new socio-economic and cultural landscape.

To make it possible, it is time to level the playing field.

India must make a shift from thinking of how to bring women back into research after a break to ways in which women can slow their career when children are growing yet remain in science. This will also help young men participate in child-rearing and make childcare a dual responsibility. Child-care leave can draw on both the partners thereby the loss of time in science research impacts both genders rather than women alone.

It is also important to focus on women who stayed on, balancing a career and home so that others can learn from their experiences.

There is a need to track the percentage of women who complete their PhDs to understand why women drop out. Data will also tell us about the number of trained scientific personnel in the country.

It is only recently that gender disaggregated data for higher education has been made available. Researchers had been asking for it to analyse the trends and provide suggestions to promote the participation of women in the STEM disciplines.

To increase scientific productivity, India needs a new and bold perspective. It may be worthwhile to ponder if the opportunity for research needs to be limited to faculty positions in universities, research laboratories and research institutions.

Post-doc positions should be expanded to allow flexibility of work. A three or five-day week will make it possible for women, who have children or families to care for, to work. The compensation should be commensurate with deliverables. Research outputs can be expanded through the post-doc workforce as is done in Japan and other East Asian countries. The notion of full-time employment needs to be revisited.

India BioScience, a programme largely funded by the government, could offer an insight. The programme that aims to aid life sciences by expanding research, promoting exchange of ideas and talent and expanding opportunities has grown over the years. It recently organised its 11th Young Investigators Meet, an annual event to share ideas and experiences. A similar initiative can be emulated by scholars from disciplines such as physics, chemistry, mathematics. At the organisational front, a policy on transparency in selection and evaluation procedures where explicit criteria are stated, will increase the pool of applicants of women.

Institutions need to commit to greater representation of women at all levels of faculty and students in a time-bound manner. There should be a mandatory disclosure of gender break-up of faculty and students across departments.

Most scientific organisations should have women in decision-making positions. To create a pool of leaders, mentoring and capacity building should be encouraged. Women have the right to leisure and fun which can have a refuelling effect on their productivity at work and home.

As we move into an era of greater competition and longer working days, let us, women, not forget to recognise that a work-life balance actually means beyond work and family.

(Dr Anitha Kurup is a professor at Bengaluru’s National Institute of Advanced Studies)

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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2019 14:58:31 IST

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