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Opinion: Is there gender equality in Indian science?

Societal reasons and infrastructural apathy to the requirements of women are keeping the latter from reaching the pinnacle of professional success Photograph: (Others)

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Feb 28, 2017, 10.09 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha


Every year on February 28, India celebrates with much fanfare the National Science Day. On this day, under the government's initiative, the nation collectively recollect past scientific achievements while taking the resolve to open many more and diverse scientific institutions to carry the exploratory journey of the country forward. Historically speaking, on February 28, 1928, Indian scientist CV Raman, who brought the first Nobel Prize in science for India, discovered his most famous contribution to the world of science, namely the Raman effect. 

Though Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman has a global reputation as a premier physicist, his treatment of women scientists in his laboratory has been the subject of much feminist criticism. Historian Abha Sur of Massachusetts Institute of Technology has pointed out in her book, The Dispersed Radiance, that an Indian biochemist, Kamala Sohonie, was denied entry into the prestigious Indian Institute of Science during the 1930s by Nobel Prize winner C. V. Raman solely on the grounds that she was a woman and that she would be a distraction in the laboratory. Although Sohonie finally confronted Raman and ensured her entry into the institute, she notes that within classrooms, casual discussion and debate with male colleagues was largely forbidden, and women were socially isolated.

Well into the twenty-first century, many of the women scientists working in the Indian institutions feel that they need to be additionally aggressive to make their mark in the field. 

In fact, reviewing the position of women in Indian science reminds me of a popular story of Birbal. Birbal was the famed jester of Emperor Akbar’s court in the sixteenth century. To prove to the Mughal emperor that a fire lit way down or far-off actually cannot impact an object, he went about cooking khichdi at the top of a tall tree when the stove was lit at the base of the plant. The khichdi was never cooked even though the fire was kept lit for the entire time. The moral of the story is: the anticipated outcome is contingent upon the optimal interaction of factors and not by their mere physical presence. 

This is exactly the professional conundrum that women aspiring to do science in India are facing. Societal reasons and infrastructural apathy to the requirements of women employees are largely keeping the latter from reaching the pinnacle of professional success. Today, as India celebrates the National Science Day, the country, as a whole, needs to remember that it can boast as much as it wants about the quality of scientific achievement, huge manpower and whole array of research institutions but at the end of the day, the question remains whether India’s scientific establishment is largely exclusionary in nature.

That the “Laboratory State” is violent and exclusionary in character has been theoretically argued by scholars such as Shiv Visvanathan in the past. More recently, Dr. Lakshmi Lingam of Tata Institute of Social Sciences pointed out to a sad lack of work-life balance in research institutes, particularly those run by private companies. Reportedly, women suffer sexual harassment while working long hours in the laboratories. Also, generally, science in India has continued to be an elitist project. The “rational experts” of Nehru’s modern India continue to come from urban areas, upper and middle-class socioeconomic backgrounds, more Hindus than Muslims.


The “rational experts” of Nehru’s modern India continue to come from urban areas, upper and middle-class socioeconomic backgrounds, more Hindus than Muslims

The barriers are real even if not always intended. Citing few big names of women scientists at the top, such as the likes of Charusita Chakravarty, Ashima Chatterjee and Janaki Amman to argue that true talents prosper without external assistance and in spite of all obstacles tantamount to bolstering the discrimination by doing nothing to bring about the necessary changes in the status quo.  

While the names mentioned above are sources of inspiration and testimony against a gendered perception of scientific abilities, they are not representative examples of millions of women out there who have kept away from a life of research, scientific teaching, and professional life of a scientist, owing to a whole array of ground-level challenges. 

So while funding is good, institutions are being built, and India churns out an ever increasing number of PhDs, the number of women faculty in major research institutions of the country and the universities is still 10 per cent or less, while being distributed among different disciplines in no specific pattern.

Women’s share of prestigious national awards or membership in the national academic bodies is also low. For instance, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award, the topmost scientific award given to scientists below the age of 45 in India, has been given to 461 scientists, among the awardees only 15 are women. Of the approximately 40 Infosys awards, as few as 6 have gone to women so far. 

Although the biological and medical sciences have slightly higher numbers, it is still not commensurate with the much higher fraction of women, greater than 50 per cent at times, among students studying these subjects. These figures are intriguing, particularly because a majority of the science and mathematics teachers in Indian schools and colleges are women. 

The most significant drop in the leaky pipeline occurs after a woman achieves the doctoral degree and not before

Scholars studying this ominous trend have, thus, concluded that though there are significant number of women science students as well as teachers, the percentage of women faculty and student in science and engineering decreases with the perceived status of institution, such as in the IITs as well as with increasing positions of authority within the academic hierarchy. The data shows that women directors of science institutes are rare. As heads of university departments and research institutes, they are not uncommon, but the fraction rarely exceeds 15 per cent overall. 

Evidence suggests that the most significant drop in the leaky pipeline occurs after a woman achieves the doctoral degree and not before. 

One of the greatest challenges India faces today is, attracting women to a career in science in India and in retaining the trained scientific woman personnel by ensuring a better career-family balance. We have to do away with archaic and paternalistic assumptions that family is solely the responsibility of women. Fighting the battle at the ideational level should accompany sweeping infrastructural changes. These two go hand-in-hand; while institutions need to hire more women, they need to come up with a setup that facilitates the employment of women too. Without infrastructural support, promises remain rhetoric and we all fail to walk the walk. 

Creating awareness in society needs to begin at early stages in a girl’s life. Evidence shows that the drop in female enrolment between primary and secondary education, and between secondary and tertiary education is steep for mainly societal reasons. To cite a more specific example as to how patriarchal attitude continues to shape a woman’s professional life, the IITs have a fiercely competitive admission process, requiring one to spend money and time to prepare for these examinations; the average parents tend not spend that much amount for a daughter. The correlation is evident if we look at IITs as case studies: as per the first joint seat allocation process in 18 IITs, 9,974 students were allotted seats of which only 900 are girls. 

Numerically speaking, the percentage of girls admitted to IITs have gone up between 2014-2015 from 8 to 9 per cent. According to Pradipta Banerji, director, IIT-Roorkee, however, a change in the mindset is needed if we want more girls in the campuses; arguably, parents are hesitant to stand young girls to study far away from home. 

My reading is, coupled with a fear for distant places which are presumed to be unsafe, there is the additional reluctance stemming from concerns about additional expenditure accrued through boarding and food. 


Science is not as objective as we assume it to be; it is fraught with values and biases of the practitioners which they carry  to the labs, classrooms and policy-making bodies

The extent to which patriarchal values can be an impediment to the growth of women’s participation in professional life is made clear from a survey done by Grant Thornton on the follow-up to Women’s Day, 2015. In a startling revelation, the report found out that along with India, Japan sits at the bottom of the list, showing only 8 per cent of senior roles in the nation is held by women. In spite of being technologically developed and economically far more advanced than India, Japan shows the similar patriarchal trend as does India and, unquestionably, the societal values reflect back on the lack of powerful position that women hold in these two countries in the business echelon.

While speaking for gender equality, we must remember that women will not function like men. Willingly or not, women do make professional sacrifices to take care of family members, particularly children. Denying this reality in the name of gender parity will force women into further professional limbo. Without any further ado, women urgently need day care facilities to be set up in the offices. Additionally, both private and government offices need to facilitate shared parental leave. In the academia and in private corporations, there is the urgent need to overcome the stigma associated with men who share childhood care.

Science is not as objective as we assume it to be; it is fraught with values and biases of the practitioners which they carry to the labs, classrooms and policy-making bodies. To make it more equitably disposed of as a discipline, it is crucial to act on fostering and supporting support for lesser represented groups. The Indian government has taken cognisance of the lack of gender parity in science, technology and engineering disciplines, but like any other bureaucratic endeavour, concrete steps are yet been taken to facilitate the requisite changes. 

Till then, we talk the talk but refuse to walk in the shoes of a woman professional.


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)


Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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