Women scientists can compete and claim their due credit: IISc's Prof HS Savithri

India has the honour of leading the countries in the world in women taking up Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects in their undergraduate studies.

According to a McKinsey survey, 57 percent of high-performing women study STEM subjects in India, as compared to just 4 percent in the US.

Yet, most of these high performing Indian women drop out mid-career, due to various reasons.

The nation spends large amounts of money in education and training these high performing women in STEM and when they drop out, it’s a huge loss of bright minds for the nation.

Prof HS Savithri. Photo courtesy IISc website

Prof HS Savithri. Photo courtesy IISc website

IT companies even boast of 33 per cent women at the entry level, but have a much lower percentage of women as they go up the pipeline. Only a very small percentage reach leadership roles and maybe one or two manage to sit on the Board. HR departments in IT companies conduct regular workshops to stem the dropout rate, offering counselling and mentoring. They also have installed several policies to help women engineers, like work from home, half a day work schedules, crèches and even lactation rooms for young mothers.

While, the general assumption has been that women avoid leadership roles, or opt out of travel due to their growing families, a National Institute of Advanced Studies research concluded otherwise. The findings pointed towards systemic biases that operate at the organizational level as a significant contributing factor.

In the light of the above findings, the drafting by the Central government of an 18-member Standing Committee to submit a report to help women scientists perform better couldn’t have come sooner. The Standing Committee also comprises 11 top women scientists and researchers.

The standing committee met on Monday to draft out their recommendations to the government.

Firstpost reached out to the head of the Standing Committee, Prof HS Savithri, from the Indian Institute of Science. Prof Savithri told us that the recommendations of the Standing Committee were confidential, however she shared with us the problems women scientists face in India.

Firstpost: The Centre has formed a standing committee to submit a report to help women scientists perform better. Why did the Department of Science and Technology feel the need to set up such a standing committee?

Prof HSS: DST has been involved in the promotion of science in women for several years through various programs. One such program is WOS-A, in which women who have had break in their career are given fellowships to pursue PhD or take up post-doctoral research. They are selected on the basis of the projects they propose and are also granted funds for equipment needed for their project and running expenses. Hundreds of women who wanted to come back to a research career have been benefited by this scheme.

This photo of women scientists at ISRO went viral after the Mangalyaan launch. Image from AFP/file photo

This photo of women scientists at ISRO went viral after the Mangalyaan launch. Image from AFP/file photo

There was flak that the earlier standing committee set up by the UPA government did not meet even once. Your comments.

No comments.

I know you said that the recommendations were confidential, but please share what you can. Can you tell us about the four broad agendas selected?

Several aspects on how to bring gender equity, improve the conditions for women at work place, encourage girls to take up science as their career, the existing programs in various government organizations and their performance were discussed. Some positive recommendations were made.

Science and engineering are preferred choices for women at the entry level, but they drop out either after marriage, or a child, or due to other reasons. The HR departments in many IT corporates are working hard to reverse this trend by offering half day working hours, work from home, crèches, even lactation rooms for young mothers. Are such facilities available for women scientists?

Facilities are available in a few but not all Institutions.

How many women scientists get back to their professions, after a break?

Most often the choice of either to stay back or return to main stream depends primarily on the motivation of the individual and the importance she gives to her own profession vs family. One must have the confidence that they need not sacrifice one for the other's sake, but can handle both.

In your view what stops women scientists from going up in their career? There are reports that men scientists of the same age, with the same qualifications seem to be getting the awards and getting to go to international meetings. Your comments.

Women need to manage time well as they have to play several roles. They usually do not have the time to attend many conferences and meetings. They do not make themselves visible in terms of their scientific contributions. Most committees that select for awards have an under representation of women and the awareness of contributions made by the women applicant may be lacking.

Statistics say that there are only 14 per cent women from some 1.92 lakh women scientists going for research? Why aren’t there more women going for research or doctoral studies? Do professional women give up easily?

Many bright women prefer teaching to research. They also feel it is a profession that allows them to balance work and family.

Quite often I have found that professional women are their own worst enemies, many of them are hesitant to take on more work, change of location or longer working hours, when they have growing families? Do you agree?

It depends on the individual, generalisations cannot be made. There are several women scientists at our Institute who work as hard if not harder than male scientists.

Most professional women also face similar challenges of not being able to project their work favourably to their bosses; face communication issues in discussion of their problems; and negotiating a better deal for themselves. Have you found mentoring and counselling help?

This depends on the organisations and their attitude towards women. Women need not lose hope. Maybe they need to work harder to prove themselves, sooner or later they will be recognised.

Is there pay parity for women scientists?

As far as government institutions are concerned, I do not believe that there is any such disparity. For example, an assistant professor of both genders get the same pay.

In a scientific environment, I would have expected male attitudes to be professional towards women scientists, but whatever I have read doesn’t support this. Why is this so?

Scientific community is not different from general community!

Is there any major research that has been attributed to women scientists in India? Have these women scientists charted their own success stories or have they found help on the way? Or, like in other professions, are there very few women in leadership roles in science?

There need not be separate work to be charted out for women. They can do any and all kinds of research men can do. They can compete and claim their due credit.

What about your own career path? You have major research in viruses under your belt and several awards and publications. How did you do it?

I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time. I had excellent family support. I had very bright students and colleagues who enjoyed working with me and shared the excitements and frustrations in research like one family. Within my own lab, I have never had any unpleasant experience of being a woman.

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Updated Date: May 22, 2016 08:27:44 IST

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