[Reproduced with permission from Hindu Business Line, column ‘Science and Sensibility’. Published: 27 April 2017]
Always in a crucible
A fair piece of the science pie — that’s what women scientists from across the world have been seeking since the times of Rosalind Franklin, the English chemist whose contribution to the structure of DNA was unfairly eclipsed by the more celebrated Watson-Crick duo. The history of such discrimination actually goes way back in time but Franklin’s is one of the most controversial cases worth citing.
Pick up a policy document on ‘women in science’ from 10 years ago, it won’t look much different from the white papers we make every year somewhere around Women’s Day to make life better for our lab ladies.
This Women’s Day was no exception, apart from the fact that there seemed to be a mightier onslaught of social media messages celebrating the “beauty, grace, sacrifice and work-life balance that women so enviably achieve”. Discerning, 20th century women seem to have had it up till their neck with these messages. What if I am not beautiful or graceful? What if I end up making a mess of my work-life? What if I decide to let my work speak, rather than my cooking or sartorial sense? Would I still be considered woman enough?
These were some questions women scientists were still grappling with at a get-together of peers from across the country in the heart of Delhi. Someone mentioned the much-talked about picture of the sari-clad ISRO women scientists, which has become synonymous with woman power in India’s space research. So much so that the international science journal Nature featured the picture of these women celebrating India’s Mars mission lift-off on the cover of their India-special issue in 2015.
Women scientists in India, like in any other profession anywhere else in the world, continue to encounter the same roadblocks; marriage that makes them drop off the radar, childcare responsibilities that do not allow them to go back to a crèche-less workplace, gender-based discrimination that steadily keeps them away from higher administrative positions and sexual harassment that makes them quit their work, often under coercion or while masking tears. (Yes, women scientists are not supposed to give into human emotions like anger or sorrow at workplace even if the humiliation makes them wish they had the license to kill.)
But slowly, very slowly, a feisty resolve seems to be driving many women scientists wanting to make a mark. One does come across a gentle intrepid spirit among women — even though a handful — in many leading labs and scientific institutions of this country. Statistics do not match up to that spirit, nor does a head count of women in power-positions higher up in the profession. Sadly, at this point in history, India also does not enjoy a particularly enviable position as far as the security of and opportunities for women are concerned. Attending an international conference outside the country invariably elicits questions like “So, does a male member of the house accompany you to work?” or “What time do you get back home?” or “How safe is Delhi if I want to come for a week-long exchange programme?”
More than ever, we are having to tackle the fundamental issue of ‘mindset’ — that socio-cultural demon which rears its ugly head again just when we think we have managed to slay it.
Much like healthcare, science runs 24X7. Women scientists need flexi-timings, flexi-space, daycare and campus housing to be able to straddle the worlds of home and work efficiently. Flexi-enrolment in science courses could also equip them better to fit in personal milestones such as marriage and childbirth. Making policy tweaks to get more women into the government’s science and technology programmes, in selection committees and in top jobs would certainly be a way forward. That would mean pumping in special funds for women scientists so that they get a fair share of research grants, can plan mid-career or gap-period skill upgradation and travel for training programmes and conferences. Financially supporting and mentoring women-led start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures would also be worth considering.
There have been demands that our text books and scientific publications become more gender sensitive by addressing stark gender inequalities that they seemed to have got conditioned to knowingly or unwittingly. A gender-conscious science policy that allows women to be part of the national growth and media advocacy that inspires more women to take up science subjects in higher academics are also part of the recommendations that women scientists made this year.
Nothing majorly different from earlier years — and that’s the real reason to worry.