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Physicists in India meet to talk about gender equity and some physics

Read time: 11 mins
1 Oct 2019
Prajval Shasti and Megan Urry release the book 31 adventures in Indian Science with authors Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Freidog

A first-of-its-kind science conference, titled Pressing for Progress, was held in Hyderabad from 19th to 21st September 2019. It was organised by the Indian Physics Association in partnership with the University of Hyderabad. During the conference, the representative from the Department of Science and Technology, Dr Vandana Singh, announced that DST would accredit Indian universities based on a gender audit, similar to the UK’s Athena-SWAN, to incentivise gender equity in scientific establishments in India. Details of what the Indian version of such a charter might look like were touched upon at the 3-day conference.

The official conference photograph.

As of now, there is no framework for such a charter. Previous reports have suggested an internal committee based self-assessment followed by accreditation by DST. The programme that promises to bring institutional reforms for gender parity will be developed in collaboration with British Council, according to the DST’s monthly report from July 2019. DST’s support of this meeting, where 70 per cent of delegates were women, encouraged delivery of “action points” on what can be done to close the gender gap in Indian science.

The meeting kickstarted on 18th September, where the organisers, Prof Bindu Bambah, Head of the hosting Physics Department at the University of Hyderabad, and Dr Prajval Shastri, retired astrophysicist and the Chair of Indian Physics Association’s The Gender in Physics Working Group, reiterated the need for a dialogue on gender parity within the Indian physics community. Dr Shastri shared that the inspiration of such a meeting was the Baltimore charter for women in astronomy, while Prof Bambah hoped to see “a Hyderabad charter” at the end of three days.

Prof Megan Urry, celebrated astrophysicist at Yale University, delivered the opening address and launched the children’s book 31 Fantastic Adventures in Science authored by Aashima Freidog and Nandita Jayaraj. In her talk titled, “What I Love (and Don't) About Physics”, Prof Urry said women in science are akin to the proverbial ‘canary in a coal mine’ -- more susceptible to prevailing issues in science, which left unaddressed, affects the whole community negatively.

On the first day, inaugural green flags by the cis-male bosses of Indian science kickstarted the proceedings. Dr Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary of the Department of Science & Technology, commented that what was required was not more “thick papers on what the problems are” but “actionable points”. The question that lingered in the room was why existing policies and recommendations have not been implemented and/or enforced, such as mandatory & gender neutral childcare policies, inclusion of women in leadership positions & committees, compulsory gender sensitisation workshops, functional Internal Complaints' Committees and adequately penalising sexual harassers at institutes funded by the DST and other government funding bodies.

Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, Dr K VijayRaghavan, tuned in from Delhi to thank the organisers for bringing together members of the physics community for discussion on gender parity. Dr Shastri provided a much-needed reality check of contrasting the views presented thus far. “The selected fraction of women (e.g. among faculty in a department or in honours lists), being smaller than the fraction in the pool, is a clear sign of discriminatory practice. Clearly, we are a flawed meritocracy. And as physicists, the objective scientists, we are more culpable than outside society in perpetuating a gender gap. Which is why we need this conference,” she said.

Dr. Bimla Buti's felicitation was followed by cake cutting as it was her birthday.

Dr Bimla Buti, a senior scientist who set up Institute of Plasma Research in the 80s - an offshoot from PRL, and the former Director of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy, was felicitated, coincidentally on her 86th birthday. She shared anecdotes from her life including how she was once rejected by IIT Delhi, only to be hired by Vikram Sarabhai to PRL a few months later. Dr Buti also shared her disdain at the woeful gender ratio of the country’s top science award, the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Prize, adding that it was a positive sign when Prof Aditi De became the first woman physicist to be recognised in 2019. In her essay in the book Lilavati’s Daughters, she had commented that it was “almost impossible for me, a woman scientist in a man-dominated field, to get nominated for prestigious awards like the Bhatnagar award.”

The delegates of PFP 2019 stood to benefit from three workshops on “understanding gender equity”. One of them, conducted by Bhanumathy Vasudevan and Payal Gupta, helped the participants to bond through commonalities in their life and introspect the effect of social injunctions on their lives. A theatre and improvisation exercise-based workshop by Swasthika Ramamurthy and Madhu Shukla explored personal agency and gender stereotypes and how they affect our sense of belonging. Both the workshops created a safe space for the participants to talk about their observations, lived experiences and open up their thoughts and opinions to discussions.

The third workshop ‘Understanding Sexual Harassment Dynamics’ was not as interactive as the other two. Most women raised their hands in unison about having faced sexual harassment at some point or the other in their life. Some segments, such as the one on understanding consent on inappropriate workplace behaviour, would have been more meaningful if the audience weren’t predominantly female. On the other hand, lawyer Vasudha Nagaraj’s education of the provisions of the law was helpful. The expectation of participants for the workshop’s material to be of practical use remained unmet.

A fresh change in pace was brought on by Prof Aditi De’s lecture on quantum technologies. Though this was one of the physics lectures, Prof De displayed some effective science communication skills as was evident from the audience engagement that followed. She did not ignore the important questions; she brought up the gender ratio at her institute, Harishchandra Research Institute in Allahabad (three women among 18 faculty members), and rightly suggested that gender equity is not mutually exclusive from science. The lecture on the growth of supermassive black holes by Prof Urry also kept the delegates successfully glued to their chairs. This rung true even on the final day of the conference during the talk by surface science expert Dr Shikha Varma from Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar. While acknowledging pioneers in her field, Dr Varma's session also brought up the systematic omission of scientists like Rosalind Franklin and Agnes Pockels.

The panel on the Gender Gap in Physics: Whose Problem is It? Left to Right: Satyavani Vemparala (IMSc),  Sumathi Rao (HRI), Ram Ramaswamy (IIT-Delhi), Anju Bhasin (Jammu Cluster University), Ajit Srivastava (IoP), Moderator Pratibha Jolly (DU), Rajesh Gopakumar (ICTS-TIFR)

The panel discussion on “Gender disparity in physics: Whose problem is it?” included three cis-men among six panellists - a gender-neutral panel! Dr Pratibha Jolly, former Principal of Miranda House, a women’s college in New Delhi, served as the moderator. It began with Dr Rajesh Gopakumar, Centre Director of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS-TIFR), Bengaluru, dismissing toxic masculinity and how it had seeped into the academic culture. Dr Satyavani Vemparala from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai, questioned the message being sent to prospective women physicists when discussions on gender parity tend to become echo chambers of socio-economic issues faced by women everywhere. Prof Ram Ramaswamy from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-Delhi), recommended making gender sensitisation an essential training module for all leadership programmes of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. When Prof Ajit Srivastava of the Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar, asked why it was hard to ensure gender parity on committees, Prof Ramaswamy turned defensive, suggesting that this was easier said than done. A number of times during the discussion it became evident that the concept of reservations was looked down upon. Prof Ramaswamy said: “I think we don’t want quota.” This provoked an audience member, educator and mathematician Dr Jayasree Subramanian, to question this attitude. There was no response from anyone except Prof Srivastava, who supported the need for reservations to correct historical injustices.

On the topic of sexual harassment, the general consensus seemed to be that an untrained Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) was proving to be unhelpful for victims, but suggestions on how to make ICCs functional and promoting healthy policies remained elusive. At least twice during the conference, scientists who’ve themselves served on ICCs, admitted and even advised complainants to go to the police directly rather than involving ICCs, which in their own admission are ineffective.

The third and final day of the conference was an intense series of plenary talks on different approaches to gender equity, leading up to the session on recommendations of the conference. Dr Chayanika Shah, a feminist scholar and physicist by training and Dr Gita Chadha from the University of Mumbai, spoke about the sociology of science, from covering ground gender politics to the deconstruction of the “scientific genius”. Aashima Freidog from talked about the science media platform that has been reporting the lived experiences of women scientists with Nandita Jayaraj, and how it led to their first book!

General recommendations (not official) discussed in the meeting are as follows:

  1. Assessment of diversity and including diversity in the community is generally not taken seriously. But moving ahead, it would be important. For example, publishing gender breakup on websites of all departments and institutes, with the number and breakup for new enrolments (of the current year), would be a simple measure in the broader framework. Having an equal gender representation in hiring committees was highlighted repeatedly, but was met with a wave of uncertainty and repulsion. Some feared that the women on these committees would be overburdened and not be compensated for their work, whereas others pointed out that having women on hiring committees preferably over other committees, such as those responsible for buying consumables/tenders etc., would be a sensible call.
  2. Creating short- and long-term goals for correcting the gender gap in both mid and senior-level positions need to be set. Institutes and universities also need to be evaluated on how they mediate this over time. Representations of all minorities would be essential such that those facing the brunt of other socio-political and economic issues are not left out.
  3. In some cases, considering the “scientific age” and not the biological age might help assess individuals for positions and promotions. This would help both men and women, who had to take a break from their work due to personal reasons re-integrate.
  4. The two-body problem, or spousal hiring, wherein either the husband or wife, whoever is second, is not hired, was recommended to be abolished in practice altogether. The lack of effective mobility and transfer schemes for both genders often results in women taking the onus on themselves as a part of the social expectation of sacrifice.
  5. Childcare should be made mandatory at conferences, so women, especially those in their reproductive prime, can also attend them, talk about their work and have access to networking, collaborations and getting active professional feedback at any stage of their career. The acknowledgement of childcare as a gender-neutral responsibility should be the basis of all institutional policies that empower scientists with families.
  6. Stronger committees and “water-tight” guidelines need to be made for sexual harassment and discrimination. It was recommended that the quasi-legal committees (such as ICC) be informed of their prerogatives, duties and trained extensively on how to exercise them.
  7. Each sexual harassment committee report should go to the council and a yearly evaluation of all the cases, successful resolutions and recommendations, should be published as an annual report. This report should go to the governing council of the institute, not just the Director of the said institute.
  8. Including social sciences in the curriculum for students and the rest of the community alike, would help in educating one and all on gender issues in science. These could be offered as electives within the department or across departments in a university set up (whichever may be more convenient). Dr Chayanika Shah said, “research institutes may be better placed to develop courses to raise awareness on caste, class and gender-based discrimination and sensitisation, sociological implications of the same, tailored to PhD students as part of their coursework.”

Of the interventions suggested by many to improve the ratio of women in science, those aimed at high school or lower grade students was a recurrent one. Meant to solve the issues stemming from socio-cultural constraints, such as pressure to marry and reluctance to invest in education for girls; gender neutrality in textbooks, women’s toilets in schools and state colleges and on-campus residence were suggested solutions.

In hindsight, making the selection procedure for faculty positions and mid- or senior-level leadership positions, awards and grants transparent, should have perhaps been given the most importance. While the members of the scientific fraternity debated measures to bring about gender equity in open spaces, the decisions being made behind closed doors, remain unchallenged.

This report was prepared by Hansika Chhabra from The Life of Science. It has been edited for clarity and brevity per the editorial standards followed at Research Matters.

Editor's Note: There was a typo and it was corrected. Error is regretted.