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How many women in science labs?

By Vineeta Bal

About half of our qualified women scientists are dropping out of the system. This is a loss not just in terms of gender representation but in terms of the investment that has gone into training them. Scientific establishments are beginning to wonder why this happens, and why women scientists appear to be at a disadvantage

Science in India remains a relatively less publicly recognised sphere. Not just Indian women scientists, male scientists too remain unacknowledged. This is partly because the achievements of Indian scientists -- apart from those who have won the occasional Nobel Prize -- are minor, thanks to the insignificant investment in science and science education in this country. In a sense, therefore, this is an endemic problem cutting across gender lines.

However, it is also true that women have suffered a specific lag in science education and scientific research. Frequent references are made to Leelavati from the mythical age, and there is occasional mention of Gargi or Maitreyee (the last two were considered 'learned women'). I don't know how much of a contribution they made to science. All we seem to know is that Leelavati was Bhaskaracharya's daughter, and he would put mathematical questions to his young child and she would respond with great alacrity. She certainly appeared to be a bright young girl, but we need a different yardstick to measure the contribution of mathematicians to this field. Historically speaking, of course, Leelavati is a great icon.

It is only in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that Indian women scientists first start appearing on the scene. They have contributed as much to scientific knowledge as many men have, but again there is nothing spectacular to report. Only a few contributions from India in the field of the natural sciences and mathematics would be considered top-ranking in international terms, and those are invariably contributions from men, because men are in a majority in our labs and continue to be in a majority as researchers, not teachers. Almost all women scientists get little recognition. I find it hard to complain about this because women as a minority in the research endeavour in India have contributed proportionately less to science research and it is therefore that much harder to find outstanding contributions from them!

To begin with, in India, there are fewer people -- both girls and boys -- who opt for the science stream at the school level. If you look at this stream more closely, you find that about 35-40% are girls. This of course is not a bad proportion at all, and because of it there is a fairly healthy percentage of women making it into science at the college level. However, of these, a disproportionate number go in for medicine; about 50% of medical students may be girls. The proportion falls to 35-40% when it comes to the study of the natural sciences, and only around 15% of the total stream go for engineering. The fact that many more women go into medicine than engineering seems to underline the cultural perception that women are not supposed to be doing mechanical jobs or building bridges.

While these cultural factors exist, the quality of science education and textbooks also contributes to the lag. Sugra Chunawala, associate professor with the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, analysed NCERT science textbooks, around 2006-07, from Class III to Class X. In that study, she was simply looking at the images -- not the content -- to find out how many human figures there were in those images. Obviously, the illustrations for the textbooks of the lower classes had more human figures than those for the higher classes. Within these human figures, she looked at the distribution of men and women and found that the number was extremely skewed. The majority of representations were of men. Women were also shown, but largely as onlookers or playing a passive role, while the men were invariably shown as the doers.

Women were also shown in traditional roles like nursing and mothering, while men were shown as pilots, doctors, and so on. Sugra concluded, justifiably, that the suggestion to girl students was that some professions were not meant for them. Teachers contribute to this stereotyping in the messages they convey in the classroom -- even though in most urban areas of India the proportion of women schoolteachers is considerably higher, even for science and mathematics.

At home and within the family there is an almost complete sway of patriarchy. In the rare situation where there is more equality between the parents, peer pressure is so strong that what happens within the home is nullified because of the messages coming from outside.

As children grow up they observe that certain roles are performed by their fathers and others by their mothers. That conditioning is very strong. Often, even among couples where the husband and wife are equally well-qualified, the man is a scientist while his wife is a schoolteacher. That clear division indicates domestic priorities that often work against the career prospects of women. For instance, the timings of a schoolteacher's work are considered more conducive to maternal child rearing. This kind of upbringing also imprints the perceptions of children in the emerging generation on what the 'right' roles for men and women are. This, in turn, influences the kind of choices children make when they become adults.

If there are no financial constraints in a family, then parents will probably spend equally on the education of their sons and daughters. If there is a minor financial constraint, the first to be affected will be the daughter, unless of course she is the older of the two and already on her way to becoming a professional. I have heard women say that their brothers went to medical college because there was a donation to be given; this meant that their parents could not afford to send them to medical college too, so they settled for "only science".

Even if dowry is legally prohibited, it continues to be an issue. We often see the expenditure that would be incurred in a daughter's wedding becoming a factor in calculations behind educational investment in children. Often the dowry a family gets for a son may go towards financing his further education. When women sometimes tell me that they have personally suffered no discrimination within their homes, I wonder whether it is also because they have been rendered insensitive to such issues, having been socialised not to notice the biases that have marked their lives.

These are the initial hurdles, but there will be hurdles even if women do take the plunge and make careers as scientists. Male and female students sometimes enter into self-selected unions -- so-called 'love marriages' -- and find partners within their own cohorts. They do their doctoral studies and go abroad for post-doctoral work. During this phase there may have been some equality in terms of sharing household chores and the like, but the concept of equality completely disappears among most of these couples after they return to India and settle into domestic life. This is very disturbing.

There may be genuine constraints, of course. Usually the man is older, so he finishes his research studies first and starts looking for a job. His wife will invariably have to live in the same city where he gets the job. By this time the woman may be in her late-20s or early-30s and the couple may decide to have a family. Once that happens, invariably any expectation the woman may have of keeping up with her research priorities is compromised.

The respective career paths of the man and woman are thus marked out. If the woman continues to work despite phenomenal hurdles and obstructions, with the help of the family, or with a full-time domestic worker, she still has to face the double burden of work and family. Women are also socialised to get more affected by domestic crises, even if they have supportive spouses. This again is a cultural imprinting that cannot be changed easily. It could be a reason why qualified women scientists are compelled to go wherever their husbands settle.

Many scientific agencies, unfortunately, also have an unwritten clause that prohibits the employment of both husband and wife in the same institution. I understand why this is the case. There is always a greater possibility of their personal lives affecting their professional lives when they are working together. But this rule needs to be broken and we need to actively encourage husband and wife to be given jobs, especially in organisations with multiple institutions.

So what is the status of women scientists? As we saw, they are in a minority; they are possibly not as productive because of family responsibilities; and they often do not want to take on administrative positions like directorships. This is for basically two reasons. One, they think it is too much of a responsibility; two, the existing social reality still makes it difficult for men to take orders from a woman. If a woman, as the director of an institution, wants her organisation to run efficiently, she has to adopt a more demanding attitude which often backfires on her. That's a situation women are not comfortable with, and the diffidence is because of the big question that remains in her mind: Should I do it, and if I am in that position will I be listened to? These are some of the factors that keep women from occupying the highest rung in the scientific establishment -- and there can be no denying the major gender gap at the highest administrative and policymaking levels in scientific organisations today.

Speaking for myself, I am certain that if I had married and had children, it would have affected my scientific output considerably. In a sense, I am what I am because of the choices I made. I did not want to get married and was never keen on bringing up a child, for whatever reason. Even as an adolescent I was never fascinated by babies, and I told myself then that I could do without them in my life. If I can do without children, that automatically gives me the flexibility to opt out of marriage. I actually felt I could do a lot more with my life if I gave up these two options. Even my ability to think about women scientists and my wanting to do something for them -- or my other social commitments -- are possible mainly because I am single.

If I had had a child, I would probably have had it in my late-20s, and for the next 10-15 years, while my child went through adolescence and grew up, my professional work would have been adversely affected. Research pressures mean that a scientist like me would have to work in the lab on Saturdays, on Sundays, even late into the evenings. I can do this because I don't have any domestic encumbrances. For most women scientists with family responsibilities, even if they do have someone to cook for them, this is difficult to achieve.

Most women scientists I know are very, very efficient during the formal working hours of 9 to 5. But they do not normally want to commit to attending meetings or anything else that needs to be done beyond working hours. Many times, as scientists, we prefer to hold our scientific meetings on weekends so that everybody can attend them. This, again, is a problem for the woman scientist because she is working non-stop for five days and has only the weekend to catch up with domestic responsibilities. If attending that scientific meeting is important for her career advancement, it becomes a problem. Travelling for conferences also becomes a problem for the same reason. During a working day there are so many interruptions that it is difficult to put one's thoughts together, write a paper, or make a presentation, all of which needs some kind of concentrated time. A person like me gets that time, but if I were a married woman with kids I am sure things would have been much harder.

I admire married women who have reached an impressive stage in their careers. They must have had much more drive and commitment than I have. But there's a flip side. They have to be extremely focused on their family and their career. The mental space to engage with anything beyond these two areas is just not there for them. This may be one of the reasons why we don't have many women scientists getting involved in social issues. They just don't have the space for such an engagement. There is an all-India organisation of women scientists called the Indian Women Scientific Association (IWSA). It has a large membership. I attended a conference IWSA held in January 2011 on the theme of scientific ethics. It struck me then that these bright women were discussing this foundational issue perhaps for the first time in their lives. I heard many women telling each other that there really are so many complex issues that one needed to think about. It was obvious they had never even ventured into anything beyond their narrow terrain of work.

Change is happening, but slowly. Of late, the Indian science establishment has suddenly been taking note of the smaller proportion of women practitioners. It is also noticing that while women may comprise about 50% of students who do their PhDs in biology -- their presence is of course much lower in mathematics and physics -- post-PhD, when the time comes for them to join institutions, not more than 20-25% emerge. About half of qualified women scientists are therefore simply dropping out of the system. This is a loss not just in terms of gender representation but in terms of the investment that has gone into training them. Now, scientific establishments are beginning to wonder why this happens, why women scientists appear to be at a disadvantage or face severe challenges either because of recruitment procedures or family responsibilities.

In 2005, a task force for 'women in science', under the Department of Science and Technology, was set up at the direction of the prime minister. I was a member of that committee and we came up with a number of recommendations. We suggested ways to foster and encourage women scientists -- including a time-bound recruitment target system for increasing the proportion of women scientists recruited at institutions all over the country. We also put forward measures that would attract schoolgirls into the science stream, including holding science camps and role model counselling through personal and media interactions with successful women scientists.

Unfortunately, we also discovered that we were only an advisory body to the government and had no powers of implementation or funds to even conduct a survey. We recommended that a steering committee be formed to implement our recommendations and that a gender audit of every scientific institute in the country be undertaken to find out how many women scientists there were in the country, how many of them had got employment, whether there had been an increase in such recruitment, and so on. It has been two or three years since then but nothing has emerged from the efforts of that committee. Today we are at a dead-end.

But the questions we raised are extremely important for India. We need to ensure that the government is pressurised into doing something about the structured barriers that come in the way of women science professionals achieving their potential. We need to influence the functioning of institutions and universities so that the recruitment and involvement of women scientists is encouraged. We need more gender equality in that space called the science laboratory.

Where have all the women scientists gone?

A study by the Indian Academy of Sciences and National Institute of Advanced Studies looked at the question of why so many women scientists are not doing scientific research. Researchers interviewed 568 women with a PhD in science, engineering or medicine. Of these, 312 were currently engaged in scientific research and teaching (WIR), 182 were in jobs other than scientific research and teaching (WNR), and 74 were currently not employed (WNW). Some of the findings:

A majority of all three groups were married, but the highest percentage of WIR were 'never married' (14.1%). A majority of all groups reported having children over 15 years but more WNW had children under 5 (requiring more parental attention). More WNW reported having no help for childcare. WIR and WNRworked an average of 40-60 hours per week.A higher percentage of WIR reported working 60 hours or more per week; a higher percentage of WNR worked 20-40 hours a week.

Why they took up a particular job: Professional advantages (WIR); lack of suitable options, or freedom and autonomy in work, or permanency of position (WNR).

Most important reason for leaving a job: Better professional prospects(WIR and WNR); temporary nature of the job, or family reasons (WNW).

Why they took a break in career: All three groups mentioned childcare and eldercare.In addition, more WIR reported other family factors such as marriage, husband's or father's transfer as significant reasons; WNR reported further studies, health reasons or non-availability of fellowship due to age limits; WNW reported difficulties in finding jobs and institutions as significant factors.

The most important provision to retain women in science: All three groups mentioned flexibility in timings. For WIR, who continue to juggle scientific research and teaching careers on the one hand, and family responsibilities on the other, provisions for transportation and accommodation are important. WNR mentioned better HR policies. WNW mentioned childcare facilities at the workplace.

In a significant departure from earlier studies, the responses of WIR were compared to those of 226 men with a PhD in science, engineering or medicine, currently engaged in scientific research and teaching (MIR).

Fourteen per cent of WIR were 'never married'. Only 2.5% of MIR report being 'never married'. Eighty-six per cent of men scientists compared to 74% of women scientists reported having children. A significantly higher proportion of WIR (46.8%) compared to MIR (33.5%) reported working between 40-60 hours per week.

Most important reason for leaving their previous job: Family is an important reason for both, but more menmentioned better prospects and more women mentioned organisational issues like flexible timings, daycare, transport and accommodation.

Primary reason for taking breaks in career: A significantly lower proportion of men reported breaks in career compared to women. For men, personal factors such as health, further studies and voluntary retirement; for women, domestic responsibilities of childcare and care for elders were the primary reasons.

Primary reason for women dropping out of science: More men indicated family and socio-cultural factors. More women mentioned organisational factors such as lack of flexibility in timings, lack of role models and mentors, discouraging and uncongenial atmosphere.

What needs to be done to retain women in science? A majority of both groups mentioned flexible timings. A larger percentage of MIR mentioned the need for refresher courses, fellowships, awareness and sensitisation campaigns. Women mentioned provisions such as accommodation and transportation that would help them balance their career and family.

What policy recommendations do researchers suggest? Recognising the inherent biases in the system, they suggested the setting up of mechanisms for transparency in the system especially in selection and evaluation procedures and on a time-bound target recruiting system that would help all those marginalised from and by the recruitment system.

Anitha Kurup, Maithreyi R, Kantharaju B, Rohini Godbole. Trained Scientific Woman Power: How Much Are We Losing and Why? Bangalore: Indian Academy of Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, April 2010

Indian Council of Agriculture Research Awards
Best Thesis Awards (ICAR)

Year Total recipients Percentage of women Total recipients Percentage of women
2003 104 10    
2004 55 15 17 31.6
2005 106 12 17 29.4
2006 60 26 18 23.5

Source: Report of the National Task Force for Women in Science


Source: Report of the National Task Force for Women in Science

(Vineeta Bal did her MD in microbiology and her post-doctoral research at the Haffkine Institute, Mumbai, and London University. She works at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi, on cellular and molecular immunology)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012