On Women’s Day this March 8, when social media was going berserk with messages celebrating the ‘beauty, grace and sacrifice’ of women, a bunch of feisty women scientists were talking shop at the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in the heart of Delhi.
The usual discussions on what comes in the way of women’s performance — childcare responsibilities, gender-based discrimination at workplace and sexual harassment — was set apart with something remarkable — a gentle-intrepid spirit that’s not difficult to come by these days in many Indian labs and scientific institutions.
Yes, the numbers do not match up to that spirit. Yes, the glass ceiling sadly exists. And yes, this country does not enjoy a particularly enviable position as far as security and opportunities for women are concerned. But listening to Indian women leaders in science and technology at a seminar put together by India government’s science popularisation unit Vigyan Prasar and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) gave a sense that there’s more to it than just those concerns. Fundamental issues of ‘mindset’ — that socio-cultural demon — need to be slayed before we can even think of levelling the playing field.
For starters, two days of brainstorming over the status of women in science resulted in some concrete suggestions. Some of these recommendations should certainly draw the attention of our science administrators and policy makers.
- Scientists’ workplaces are functional 24X7. It’s essential to keep women’s needs in mind — flexi-timings, flexi-space, creche, daycare and campus housing — these must be made mandatory, not optional.
- Flexi-enrolment in science courses for women, given they have important personal milestones such as marriage and childbirth to take care of.
- Increase in representation of women in government S&T programmes, in selection committees and in top jobs.
- Gender sensitive text books; scientific publications that address gender inequalities.
- Increase in funding so that more women can avail of government (DBT, DST and UGC) schemes; also mid-career and gap-period skill upgradation; travel funds to attend courses/training/conferences; and mentoring/funding support for women-led start-ups and entrepreneurship.
- A gender-conscious science policy that allows women to propel and be part of national growth
- Media advocacy that helps make science the preferred choice of women by celebrating the success stories of women scientists and science entrepreneurs/communicators — in short, making new role models.
And this, as one can imagine, is just a snapshot of what transpired.
Vineeta Bal, a scientist at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi and a member of India’s task force for women in science, earlier discussed at length in this commentary for Nature India what India’s women scientists need and why. Some years back, on Women’s Day again, the government had rolled out some schemes for women scientists based on recommendations of a panel headed by renowned nutritionist Mahtab Bamji. The panel had found that women scientists faced discrimination, sexual harassment and other problems besides their poor representation in committees and science faculties.
A study by UNESCO outlining the involvement of women in science had some stark figures for India. The Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS) said 44% of bachelor students are female while 41% get till the doctoral level. What happens beyond that has not been chronicled for India, though there are figures from many other countries in the dataset. UIS put together an interactive infographic on women in science to highlight the global gender gap in higher education and scientific research. They aptly call it the “leaky pipeline”.
A Nature special issue on Women is Science also exposed the dismaying extent to which sexism still exists in science and introspected on why progress in this area has stalled.
The recommendations of this national seminar by Vigyan Prasar and DBT are a fresh reiteration of what women scientists in this country and elsewhere have long been seeking.
Now, does it need a Women’s Day to herald policy changes that can arrest this enormous waste of human talent?