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The She in Science

Life and Work of Female Indian Scientists

Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj (labhopping@gmail.com) are independent science journalists and run The Life of Science project.

Who and where are the women doing science in India? Two science writers set out on a journey to collect stories that counter the popular narrative of science being the domain of old bearded men.

 

Conception of The Life of Science

What gave birth to The Life of Science (TLoS)? It was while working together at a science magazine for children that plans for the project began. The initial idea was to build a digital resource for students and the general public to have an idea of what a life in science and technology research entails. Popular media accounts are often misleading as they fail to capture the complex terrain that a life in science entails, both professionally and personally. Digital resources of institutions are not helpful either as they are, more often than not, poorly curated for the general public.

What does an archaeologist do? Why do seismologists bother studying earthquakes that have passed? What does it mean to study the neurobiology of a specific emotion? By answering some of these questions for people, we hope to help open new worlds of opportunity and give people the required knowledge to be able to decide if a career in research is possible for them, and if yes, what kind.

We decided that the best way to do this would be to go on the ground and see for ourselves. As former scientists-in-training ourselves, this would mean catching glimpses of the life we left behind not because we were not passionate enough, but because we realised that our strengths lay in communicating rather than doing research.

Focus on Women

For the past 25 years, 25–30% of PhD students in India have been female (Godbole and Ramaswamy 2015). However, this does not translate to women actually pursuing research or holding faculty positions. As of April 1998 only 9% of the total scientists engaged in research and development in science and technology institutes of Delhi were female (Society for Environment and Development 1998). Similarly puzzling statistics persist in recent years—for example women pursuing a physics degree in India comprised 32% of the undergraduates—higher than the United Kingdom as well as the United States’ 20%, but the proportions drop to 20% and further to 11% in the graduate and professional level respectively (Kurup et al 2010).

The same report makes several fascinating observations regarding the familial situations of these women, working hours, factors like career breaks, and reasons for dropping out. Since its conception in 1957, out of around 500 recipients of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, only 16 have been women. Even here there is an imbalance in the disciplines that they have been awarded in—Mathematics: 2; Physics: 0; Engineering: 2; Chemistry: 3; Earth Science: 1; Biology + Medical: 8.

The questions are many, and it is this reality that we were keen to explore when we decided to focus on women in our project.

Way of Working

The two of us carrying out this research have two different approaches of finding subjects. One of us finds word of mouth most reliable and the other benefits from the spontaneity of simply walking into institutions without an appointment. Except with high security establishments, we have found that most of our scientific centres are quite open and welcoming.

We now find ourselves talking to women who would otherwise have stayed invisible as they work in smaller towns in non-premier institutions, but nevertheless are a crucial component in the world of Indian science as they train hundreds of students and conduct significant research themselves.

Many times, our personal and social networks fail to give us the required connections in a particular town or university. We then turn to the internet but even this often does not work as Indian science is not well documented in the media. Renowned institutions like the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Indian Institute of Sciences in Bengaluru and Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology in Thiruvananthapuram have websites that have proved to be quite user-friendly, but this is not always the case. The websites of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are unhelpfully heterogeneous—IIT Bombay’s is pretty good, while IIT Madras is still a counter-intuitive mess, at least for outsiders like us who want to scope out good research. Even the website of the Banaras Hindu University, India’s flagship university, has very limited information of the research that is happening in the laboratories there. At the other end, we have been surprised to find local colleges like the Union Christian College in Aluva, Kerala, having informative websites. These are the notable cases but overall, websites of most scientific institutions continue to be bare, out-of-date and uninformative.

Emerging Trends

At the time of writing this article, TLoS is 13 interviews old (we publish one a week), and has documented the personal and professional experiences of 15 women working in science. There are six to seven more in production for the coming month. There are early days but there do already seem to be some characteristics that these women, despite varying widely in age, field of study, stage of career and background, have in common.

Family Support

Almost all of the 17 or so women interviewed so far emphasised the role of family support in their success. Most of them boast of the unconditional support of either their mother or father through their journey as a scientist. This support also comes in the form of childcare among the mothers in the group—many had parents or in-laws who live in the same city or the same household.

Wife-Husband Scientist Team

All of the researchers are above 30 years of age. 11 out of 15 interviewed so far are married; most are mothers. Among the 10 who run their own labs, have spouses who are also doing scientific research. Four of the five spouses work in the same field as their wives. Each of these three women, though studying vastly varied subjects (geophysics, pharmaceutical biotechnology and microbiology) and hailing from different corners of India (Ajmer, Bengaluru and Mumbai), emphasised how much working as a team and having a spouse who understands and shares the pressures has helped them advance their careers and manage their families better than they could have otherwise.

The stories of husband-wife scientists’ team seem to suggest that if the husband is an academic, their partners are more likely to continue their academic life. In one case, the husband was in the room while the interview took place as they share the responsibility of handling the department.

Raising Children

A number of our subjects who have children admitted that some of their career choices have been dictated by what made sense with regard to bringing up their children. Radhika decided to return to India from a successful run in a reputed Australian laboratory so that she could give back to her parents who she had highly depended on for childcare support.  Another subject Ramadevi, came back from the US following concerns about the country’s influences on her teenage daughter. Importantly, none of these choices were made rashly; they all followed years of deliberation and preparation to ensure a smooth transition into Indian academics.

Backgrounds

Most of our subjects so far have been privileged to come from backgrounds where academics is considered a priority for daughters as much as men. Though primarily urban, a handful, like junior Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist Kriti Faujdar we met at Hassan, Karnataka, were brought up in small towns, in this case, a village in Bihar. However, Kriti counts herself lucky to have a father who has always placed a high priority on his three daughters’ education despite societal disapproval.

Challenges

Even with our small dataset, stories of challenging scenarios have emerged. Though many of our subjects insist that they have been treated with equal respect and given equal opportunities, a few have had unpleasant experiences—one biochemist recounted a horrible episode where she was accused of having a questionable relationship with her superior.

A scientist from a government research institution later changed her mind about her views on working under male bosses (she had said that any awkwardness with women in the workplace could stem from the lack of women they had to interact with while studying), indicating that there exists a fear of speaking one’s mind especially about sensitive topics like sexism.

Several researchers, especially from smaller institutions with greater funding crunches, have had a hard time jumping through bureaucratic hurdles in the path to setting up a functional laboratory. A microbiologist from Ajmer, for example, informed us that no faculty recruitments had taken place in the past 10 years and there is hardly any facilitation for the existing researchers to do collaborative research or file for patents. Another biotechnologist in Varanasi had to literally build up her laboratory from an empty room, right from the electrical wiring to experimental equipment.

Researchers who engage in a lot of field studies and travel have offered multiple perspectives. A fisheries scientist in Kerala said that being female earns her more respect and people seem more enthusiastic to help, whereas an ecologist, also from Kerala, felt that the risk is undeniably more for women and often accepting help from strangers involves blind faith.

Interestingly, all of these women continue to research and publish work irrespective of social background, quality of their institutes, and bureaucratic battles. This seems to suggest that scientific research in India is a little more democratic than that in the social sciences where research is skewed towards the well-known central universities and research institutions even after successive reforms instituted by the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) (DFID SARH 2011).

At the start of their career, most of these women have been told by close or distant relatives to concentrate on their personal life rather than their chosen academic path. “Get married and then do whatever you want,” seems to be a universal statement.

One of these scientists opened up about sexual harassment faced at the workplace but requested this information to not be included. One of them was wrongly accused of having an affair with someone in the higher management, as if it was the only way to explain her efficiency in the bureaucratic process.

Comments on Equality

Towards the end of the interview, we always ask our subjects to share some pointers towards more gender equality in science. Most of them agree that family pressure and responsibilities are the prime challenges. Many of them remind us that a woman can be successful in science if she has optimum work-life balance, unlike most other women in our country who haven’t. There are several changes that could be instituted—day-care spaces close to the workplace, at least one women in higher management positions or simply listening to women colleagues when they have an opinion. There has even been a case (in a yet to be published interview) of a scientist insisting to us that it’s simply not possible to have it all—a woman has to make a choice between family and career.

Aspirations

TLoS project aims to reach as many cities and towns as possible to unearth as many different stories and profiles of people who work in scientific labs. We want to be accessible to varied audiences and we intend to do this by eventually translating our content into regional languages and making use of regional media to disseminate it.

These stories will travel, as all stories inevitably do. It will be nice to see them in popular newspapers—major and regional, rather than just as Facebook posts. These stories are relevant in local newspapers that are read where these scientists live and work.

The project strives to develop into an honest and reliable resource both for young science enthusiasts to understand what rewards and challenges a life in research will likely entail as well as for the general public to eliminate the shroud of mystery around scientific work so that they can appreciate the role scientists play in the community.

References

[All URLs accessed on 31 May 2016]

DFID South Asia Research Hub (2011): Social Science Research in India—A Mapping Report, September, http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/pdf/outputs/mis_spc/60911-MappingReport_social_science.pdf.

Godbole, Rohini M and Ramakrishna Ramaswamy (2015): “Women Scientists in India,” Report for the Indian Academy of Sciences, http://www.ias.ac.in/public/Resources/Initiatives/Women_in_Science/AASSA_India.pdf.

Kurup, Anitha et al (2014): Trained Scientific Women Power: How Much are we Losing and Why?, IAS-NIAS Research Report, April, Bengaluru: Indian Academy of Sciences and National Institute of Advanced Studies, http://eprints.nias.res.in/142/1/IAS-NIAS-Report.pdf.

Society for Environment and Development (1998): Status of Women Scientists in S&T/R&D Institutions in India, New Delhi: National Commission for Women, http://ncw.nic.in/pdfreports/WOMEN_SCIENTISTS.pdfThe Life of Science

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