How can society help keep Indian women in science, get young girls interested in the field?

Women make up only 14 percent of 2.8 lakh scientists, engineers and technologists in research, institutions in India.

Research institutions around the world on an average have 28.4 percent women employees. Indian research institutions have been unable to make even this poor benchmark. Women make up only 14 percent of 2.8 lakh scientists, engineers and technologists in research and development institutions in India. In the past few decades, while the number of women enrolled in science higher education has steadily increased, the number of women entering the science workplace has not shown a commensurate rise. This suggests that women are either not willing to continue in science jobs or are not being provided suitable opportunities to do so.

The number of women, as compared to men, in the fields of science and technology is very low.

The number of women, as compared to men, in the fields of science and technology is very low.

Pros of gender-balanced in scientific campuses

There is a school of thought that women bring a distinctly different perspective to science than men. Studies have shown that diverse groups have more collective intelligence than groups of made up of men only. The implication is that gender-balanced teams are likely to be more productive and “smarter” as compared to all-male teams. It, therefore, makes sense that we would like more laboratories to try and achieve an equal male: female ratio.

But an even more striking demand for women in science is in research and issues which pertain directly to women. For example, the first at-home pregnancy test was designed by Margaret Crane in 1967. After a visit to a lab that tested for pregnancy, she assembled the home pregnancy kit at her home. Crane, who had been originally hired by the lab to work on their cosmetic line, is a clear example of how women are most apt to understand women’s issues. The need for privacy and the ability to test for something as life-changing as a pregnancy, in the luxury of one’s home, is apparent to women. The necessity of including women in research related to women and products whose primary consumers will be women do not need to be elaborated.

Further inclusion of women in workplaces can impact economic productivity. For example, companies that have women in corporate leadership position show improved firm performance. In addition, if both spouses work, the household is likely to hire outside help, creating more job opportunities. This is particularly true of new mothers going back to their jobs, who may need nanny or crèche services. Thus the inclusion of women in the workforce may result in the creation of more jobs and contribute to economic growth.

Finally, women in research can act as role models for younger girls. A Pew Research Working Paper in 2015 showed that in the United States, adult daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than those whose mothers had not worked during their daughters’ childhoods. Further, the sheer presence of more women in workplaces will reduce barriers for women from more conservative communities to enter science.

Women have alot of societal roles to fill like marriage and having children.

Women have a lot of societal roles to fill like marriage and having children which can make having a career difficult.

Reasons why the presence of Indian women in science are low

Given the broad societal, team and individual benefits to having more women colleagues, one has to wonder why the gender balance in Indian science is so poor. One reason is that the social fabric of India is such that the opportunity cost for a woman to work in science is high. Research is typically not considered as a 9 to 5 job, with demands made on working post these routine hours, on weekends and travel expected for conferences/collaborations. Indian women, on the other hand, are expected to be more than wage earners. They have to be a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother while also being an employee.

Maternity and childcare is an important reason why women have to leave or at least take a break from work. But in addition to that, expectations of home management, taking care of the elderly and maintaining social relations also fall to the woman. At Diwali, she is expected to make sweets/snacks, to draw rangoli and to light wicker lamps in addition to everything else the family does. For this woman to go to work because she of on-going experiments is a big ask. And even if she does, she can rarely escape the social pressure that will accompany the abandoning of socially-determined duties.

Even for those revolutionaries who decide to make the commitment to science, the path is difficult. Many fellowships and awards are restricted by age-limits. A woman who has had to take time out to have one or two children would find it very difficult to stay competitive to win these fellowships. For example, many academic campuses prefer hiring faculty below the age of 35 years. This age limit reduces the opportunities for women — who have taken breaks — especially when they are competing with men.

It is important to have more women in the science fields because it serves as an example for young girls to follow in their footsteps,

It is important to have more women in the science fields because it serves as an example for young girls to follow in their footsteps,

Finally, research has shown that women are less internationally mobile and less collaborative than men which hampers their scientific progress. A number of factors can feed into these compromises, but one cannot ignore the social expectations placed on women in Indian society have a large role to play in this phenomenon. It is not an easy choice for a woman to leave a family for three to six months and go for collaboration to another country.

How can we do better?

First, consideration has a recognition of the opportunity cost of women to enter the workplace. Apart from the pay, other benefits would also help women stay at work. For example, in addition to maternity break, providing access to crèche services or payments of a certain number of doctor visits for the mother/baby would reduce barriers for women getting back to work. Particularly for working mothers, the impact of paternity leave granted to their partners should be studied. It is likely that having the baby’s father at home for a long time may help the mother get back to work faster. The reduction of family management to a woman’s issue does not help keep women working. Balancing work and home life is not a question only women should be answerable to, it is up to the family unit to figure out.

Young Indian girls also need to see strong successful precedents to inspire them. These do not need to be CEOs of billion-dollar companies (who are amazing, but young girls may feel are unattainable positions), but could be next-door ladies who successfully run a home business. It could be a science teacher who has studied abroad but chosen to return to their village to teach. India media needs to exemplify these stalwarts too — they can help girls shape their aspirations and take baby steps to achieve them.

India as a society needs more women in the workplace and definitely need more women on our research campuses. But to get them there, we need to understand why they choose to leave science and create a welcoming ecosystem to help them continue contributing to Indian science.

The author is a research fellow with Takshashila’s Technology and Policy programme

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