Women and science – miles to go

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“Are you into research and do you have two children? How do you manage both, your research career and your family? »

“There is a break in your career. Will you be able to start your career from scratch? »

Women scientists are often asked these questions. I wonder why these are not the basic questions for men who also go through commitments and family responsibilities? Women are multitasking and visible on multiple platforms in everyday life. Yet these are the questions they must answer at every step. Women scientists are gladiators. In a sense, they are still in the fight, tackling challenges on multiple fronts – caste, religion, gender, equality and funding.

Anna Mani, Annapurni Subramaniam, Raman Parimala, Rathnashree, Rohini Godbole, V Shanta, Soumya Swaminathan, Sujata Ramdorai – the list of successful Indian women in science is long.

Unfortunately, women scientists have not been encouraged for decades. Although her thesis involved a lot of research work, Anna Mani, a student of Professor CV Raman, was refused a PhD at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Undaunted, Mani majored in meteorological instruments at Imperial College London. After returning to India, she joined the Indian Department of Meteorology (IMD). Her contributions have led her to be called the Weather Woman of India.

“The good thing is that women become role models very easily. Especially for their children, gender biases are broken down pretty early. That’s why women in science are important,” says Dr Vinita Gowda, Associate Professor, IISER Bhopal.

Research and fieldwork
In the career of a scientist, obtaining a doctorate is difficult and time-consuming. After embarking on your PhD, you have to face several obstacles to achieve it and defend your PhD. There is an absolute drop in the number of post-doctoral candidates for many reasons. Women shy away from choosing pure science as a career option because they find late-night meetings, travel to seminars and workshops, and fieldwork and investigations difficult amidst family commitments .

Unlike doctoral programs, postdoctoral fellowships allow researchers to think and act independently. The researcher must select a subject, plan the research laboratory, fieldwork and budget, and process purchase orders for instruments and materials. All of these require independent decision-making and the skills to run the project through to completion. Additionally, women, especially those in Tier 2 cities, have to overcome several obstacles. They have less exposure to big cities, have to travel to and from distant places to work, and may not be very fluent in English. But despite the obstacles, research is rewarding and enjoyable.

” Fieldwork ! It is not so different for a woman, who does household chores, works hard in the agricultural fields and fetches wood from the forests. It’s a doable thing,” says Dr. Vinita.

Maternity break
A big question for women is coping with the maternity break, especially when planning their scientific careers. What is the return situation after maternity leave? You have to be constantly in contact with research-related topics. Coming back to research and the mindset of balancing work and family is not easy.

Legally, there is a law on maternity benefits for working women, allowing them to obtain a maternity break at any stage of the search. Yet, not all private colleges and institutes in Tier 2 cities offer this facility. Rajiv Gandhi National Creche Scheme for the Children of Working Mothers provides child care facilities for working women in the community. It took more than ten years from the time the program was announced to bring it to the level of implementation. Institutes like IISER Pune have set up day care centers for their female employees and also offer the same to women who visit the institutes for workshops and lectures. Like IISER, how many institutions or colleges have offered this program?

“My son accompanies me in my fieldwork. It’s fun to watch him learn with him. Yet, it is difficult to take samples in its presence,” explains Dr. Priti Gururaja, Inspire Fellow, Center for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

Even after clearing all the hurdles, pursuing a PhD/postdoctoral fellowship may not be an option because the age limit for most PhD entrance exams like GATE, UGC-NET or CSIR-NET makes it impossible to access research after a career break. Constantly need to be updated on the topic of interest during the break period to take off smoothly when it gets back to work.

Sexual harassment, implicit and explicit, is another challenge female academics face. There is an attempt to address the issue through a sexual harassment cell in key national/international/governmental institutions. Some of these institutions have set up a “POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) in the Workplace” committee which helps institutes adopt best practices for a safe and equal opportunity workplace. Having a POSH cell and awareness campaigns should be mandatory in all institutes, and the administration should ensure that these are not homonymous facilities. They must be practically operational.

Leadership and Recognition
To bring about change at the societal level, girls must rise to leadership positions. Most women in higher positions come from privileged classes or second-generation scientists. Men still dominate most leadership positions. A cursory look at the directors of institutions of national importance in the country shows very few female scientists at the helm. Dr Vandana Prasad, Director of Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleoscience, Dr Priya ABraham, NIV, Pune, Dr Manju Sharma and Dr Renu Swarup, Former Secretaries of DBT, Dr Annapurni Subramaniam, Director of Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Dr Tessy Thomas , Director General, DRDO and Dr. Dhriti Banerjee, the first female director of the Zoological Survey of India, are some exceptions.

Under the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) offers programs such as WOS-A, WOS-B, and WOS-C that encourage students pursuing masters, doctoral and women on career break to get back to work. research. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) also offers many opportunities for female scientists. Slowly but surely, women are taking over many leadership positions. Now their additional responsibility is to encourage women by organizing inspirational talks, small grants/scholarships and many other workshops to help them build their careers.

Even for the prestigious research fellowships, female fellows are far below the percentage of females in the respective fields. When women can’t find the right representation and opportunities, how can they even think about earning rewards?

Workshops, seminars, scholarships and awards, academic positions as well as government policies need to be reviewed with an emphasis on welcoming women of all categories. An example would be to provide age relaxation for attempting PhD competitions and interviews.

Even social media platforms are making noise about how women could be brought into leading roles. For example, “Bias Watch India” (@biaswathindia), a Twitter-based initiative, documents sexist panels (often referred to as “manels” when there is no female representation) at Indian STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) conferences and similar events. Women in STEM Research (WISR) India works for Indian women and gender minorities by studying community and collaborations using social media. The Life of Science, a science media platform, focuses on showcasing the work of women and minorities in research institutes in India.

The good news is that funding agencies in India and their programs for women in science are much better than in other countries. For starters, maternity leave and childcare availability are easy in India, at least in larger institutions. Indian funding agencies should continue to publicize the work of women scholars by organizing career programs for women at the individual level, research groups and institutes.

To conclude, we would certainly mention books, such as ‘Leelavati’s Daughters‘, ‘Women in Science, 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world‘ and ‘31 fantastic adventures in science‘, which details the work and lives of female scientists around the world. They are illustrated books showcasing women’s contributions to science that definitely encourage and motivate, help women understand the pros and cons in any field of research, and overcome the barrier that discourages them from doing science. science.

We just have to light the lamp and show the way.


An earlier version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald.

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