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Nurturing a support system for India’s women scientists

Read time: 9 mins
28 Feb 2020
Nurturing a support system for India’s women scientists

Today is National Science Day—a day to celebrate the spirit of science and scientific temper across the county. It is a day to commemorate Sir C V Raman’s discovery of the Raman effect. This year, the theme of National Science Day is ‘Women in Science’, celebrating the contributions of women scientists to the field of science in India.

However, there is a bit of irony here, considering Sir Raman’s view of women and their ability to contribute to science. The good news, however, is that these noteworthy contributions of women scientists, in the past and the present, are now receiving recognition and appreciation.

In India, like everywhere else in the world, there is a gender gap in the number of men and women in science. The latest AISHE survey, by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, found that about 48% of those enrolled in a PhD programme in science were women. While this number is heartening, these budding scientists need an ecosystem of support to realise their full potential and be successful in their careers as scientists. Such a support system is critical in increasing the representation of women and giving them a voice.

“Representation of women in all spheres is critical for success and growth and to maintain gender diversity and parity,” argues Dr Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. In an interview with Research Matters, she points out that unless there is an equal representation by gender, we, as a country, will not be able to move ahead and achieve our desired goals. “Women, who constitute nearly 50% of the population, and are engaged in all fields, must have equal representation,” she states.

In reality, challenges galore

A recent study found glaring gaps between men and women in the authorship of scientific papers across the world [See image below]. Although this gap seems to be narrowing down over the years, there are miles to go. The same study also found that women give up their career in science much before men do because of other responsibilities.

Gender imbalance since 1955 [Image Source]

These findings are not too surprising, says Dr Gitanjali Yadav, Scientist at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research, New Delhi, and Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. In an interview with Research Matters, Dr Yadav shares some of her observations on what factors reduce the productivity of women in science.

“It is also becoming increasingly evident that women spend a disproportionate amount of time on academic housekeeping work when compared to their male counterparts,” she points out.

This ‘invisible’ work keeps the ladies perpetually busy, without adding to conventional ‘scientific productivity’.

Dr Kavita Isvaran, Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, agrees with this view.

“In India, the representation of women in science institutions is already low. Besides, because of the ‘good-girl’ syndrome, women on average take up more work than men, which can substantially affect productivity and therefore, tenure and promotion,” she shares, talking to Research Matters.

There are other conspicuous barriers that can add to the disproportionate mental load for women. Safety is one such, says Dr Isvaran, as she recollects her days as a field ecologist travelling to remote jungles of India to carry out her work.

“The main challenge while doing fieldwork was always having to think very carefully about safety while planning fieldwork,” she points out. “As a PhD student, I travelled to 10-15 blackbuck populations across India, mostly by bus and train. I was very careful to plan my travel to minimise the chances of running into a tricky safety situation. It could be quite stressful at times, especially if the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere, and it was nearing the end of the day.”

Talking about fieldwork, Dr Jahnavi Joshi, Scientist at the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, provides a different perspective.

“There are other challenges of doing fieldwork—getting permits on time and managing logistics and field staff,” she shares.

Another commonly cited reason for women to step out of academia is the responsibility of caregiving.

“Managing work and family can occasionally be difficult,” says Dr Isvaran, a mother of two small children. “When there are tight deadlines at work and children are sick, then meeting those deadlines can be tough. Besides, when meetings are scheduled in the evening or on weekends, one needs to adjust family responsibilities to attend them, or miss out on participating in important meetings.”

For women, a break in their career is almost inevitable if they decide to have children. In a publish-or-perish world, this much-needed break could spell an end to some blossoming careers.

“Academic institutions should aim for a conducive and supportive work environment, where child-care facilities are available, and grants are targeted towards those on a break to get back to academics,” voices Dr Joshi.

Decisions on the evaluation and promotion of researchers should consider the period of maternity or paternity leave availed. However, the generous 6-month maternity leave may not be adequate.

“Women are very likely to experience reduced productivity in the months leading to birth and also after the baby is six months old. Factoring this into how productive we expect women scientists to be, without appearing patronising or conciliatory, can make a big difference,” opines Dr Isvaran.

Besides, there are institutional politics and gender-directed slander one has to overcome. Dr Anindita Bhadra, Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Research and Education Kolkata (IISER Kolkata), shares some of her traumatic experiences dealing with such challenges, during her second pregnancy.

“Because the representation of women in science is still very low, a woman scientist frequently participates in committees where she may be the only woman. This can feel a little constraining or even sometimes intimidating and come in the way of contributing freely to the discussion,” adds Dr Isvaran.

Are such challenges specific to India?

“Most of the challenges faced by women in science are common across the globe,” says Dr Yadav. “Self-questioning, guilt and doubt, lack of self-confidence and the fear of combining an academic career with a family—these are everywhere,” she says.

However, when it comes to the debate on work-life balance, it is by default, the women who are judged. They are also more likely to experience the need, both perceived and experienced, to work harder and deliver a higher output to advance at the same rate as their male colleagues.

Finding ground and sailing through

In a maze of gender stereotypes and challenges, how do these women thread the slippery slope they are on? For Dr Isvaran, it is a handful of supportive colleagues who understand the needs of a woman scientist.

“My colleagues are immediately supportive when we have asked for evening and weekend meetings to be rescheduled,” she says, stressing on the need for sensitising these needs at the workplace. “Creating an environment that is supportive of a work-life balance is crucial, especially since, on average, women contribute to caregiving more than men.”

Networking among peers, through professional organisations, can provide a supporting ecosystem, says Dr Bhadra.

“Professional organisations can play multiple roles, including mentoring, networking and sometimes, funding. They also help to engage in science policy, administration and outreach, build leadership skills and increase the visibility of scientists,” she says.

Dr Bhadra is the Founding-Chairperson of the Indian National Young Academy of Science (INYAS), an initiative of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA). She is also a member of the Global Young Academy (GYA) and the Indian chapter of the Organisation of Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD).

Talking about her experience at INYAS, Dr Bhadra says, “INYAS is an academy of young scientists, so we try to discuss the problems and concerns of young scientists and brainstorm together for solutions. We have made contact with funding organisations, and now, INYAS members will now be part of funding committees, which will help to give voice to young academicians to the funding agencies,” she explains. “INYAS aspires to be the voice of young scientists across the country, fostering careers by providing new opportunities and regular platforms to exchange ideas, initiate discussions/collaborations among scientists across boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines”, adds Dr Yadav, who is a former member of the Core Committee at INYAS.

There are also various schemes and initiatives aimed at women from an administrative standpoint.

“The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has made special efforts to encourage women scientists to pursue their research even after a career break. BioCARe is one such scheme which allows women researchers both employed and unemployed to take up research,” shares Dr Swarup. “We also have special awards to recognise excellence in research and innovation by women scientists, like the Janaki Ammal-National Women Bioscientist Awards,” she explains.

The Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a Public Enterprise under DBT, also supports women entrepreneurs.

“We have three incubators, which specially focus on women entrepreneurs and nearly 10%-15% of startups supported are by women. We also have a special challenge for women entrepreneurs to help them take entrepreneurship research forward and create enterprises,” details Dr Swarup.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) have an array of schemes and awards to encourage women in science.

“This year, the SERB Women Excellence Award is being conferred to the recipients by the President of India. What greater morale booster can there be for women in Science,” asks Dr Yadav.

Grooming role models, who can inspire more women to take up science as a career, are vital too. “A lack of role models can be very discouraging,” says Dr Isvaran, and Dr Yadav is quick to point out a few— “We do have fabulous role models in the DBT Secretary, the INSA President and our very own founding Chairperson of INYAS.” Dr Joshi also agrees, “Definitely, we need more women scientists in India,” she says.

But simple acts, like paying careful attention to the composition of a seminar series or a panel discussion or a committee, to ensure that gender diversity is represented, goes a long way in spreading the message. Initiatives like Request a Woman Scientist helps amplify the voice of women scientists by providing a database of women scientists who can be considered for different panels and committees.

“Bringing together women by organisations like INYAS, India Bioscience, GYA and others, reduces isolation, allows for sharing of experience, discussing common issues and ways to address them. Increasing their connections builds a strong platform for continuing future support,” says Dr Yadav.

The scene for women in Indian science is slowly but surely changing for the better, as evidenced by the increase in their enrollment. With many more vocal voices joining in, the road ahead is likely to be eventful for many. At this juncture, what women need is an environment that understands their specific needs, trusts them and supports them through testing times. Of course, words of encouragement have never hurt anyone!

As Dr Swarup puts it— “Never see anything as a failure and do not let that hold you back. Be confident of yourself, identify your strengths, and this will help you to attain great heights.” 

Editor's Note: The story was modified to correct a typographical error and mistakes. The error is regretted.