Source: India Times

International Women's Day: Focus on India

March 08, 2018

Written By: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

India: A country with 23 official languages, a myriad of religions, and the world's largest sourcing destination for the Information Technology industry. According to the India Brand Equity Foundation, India "employs about 10 million workforces." However, studies by the Indian National Science Academy have found that there was an 11% decline in women in science in 2004. In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that only 14.3% of total researchers in India were women. In a country with so much technological advancement and so much potential, it is puzzling to see the numbers of women in STEM suffering - when one just looks at the numbers, that is.

Looking past just data, a starting point is the gender gap in India. In 2014, CNN reporter Ravi Agrawal writes that according to the World Economic Forum's 2014 "Global Gender Gap Report," "India's women rank 134th in the world (out of 142 countries) for economic opportunities; they place 126th in the world for educational attainment; 141st in the world for health and survival." CNN goes on to report that the wide gender gap in India goes back to before a girl is even born - there are 940 women for every 1,000 men in India, partly due to infanticide. Girls are born with the "'promise of a second class life." Discrimination against women is widely practiced in everything from their inability to achieve an education to the view that women are a burden on men, "a cause for losing money in marriages and dowries."

Does this inequality bleed into the treatment of women in STEM fields? Absolutely.

Source: The Alternative. Indian scientists celebrate the success of India's Mars Orbiter Mission.

In 2015, India Today writer Gayatri Jayaraman tackled the subject in the article "The senior, most awarded and most respected of Indian women scientists quietly take on a strident sexism - in the lab and outside." Writer Anushay Hossain writes in her blog that on the contrary, the problem is not just a quiet one. Studies have suggested that the sexism in STEM fields in India is not so secret. In 2004, the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) found that women held over a third of all science degrees in the country, but made up just 15-20% of tenured faculty. In 2009, women made up 40% of STEM graduate programs, but the numbers are not translating to actual jobs or positions of power for women.

Jayaraman's exhaustive article goes into the experiences of Indian woman scientists on a deeper, more personal level. The article quotes prominent woman scientists, such as an unnamed woman scientist, a foremost member of the STEM community and winner of the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) prize, who says, "There is no Indian woman scientist who does not face it. But unlike men, women don't have a critical mass of scientists. So the backlash is vindictive." She recounts an incident where a male colleague asked her to fetch tea, and when she objected, he replied, "What is there to be upset about? I will get you tea instead." A reminder of her place in the lab, but also that as a woman, that she was "oversensitive." Shubha Tole, a neuroscientist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) recalls meetings where she wasn't allowed to finish her sentences. "A colleague quipped that I was in the difficult position of having well thought-out opinions, the guts to voice them, but no Y chromosome," she says.

Source: India Today

In Indian society, a woman is "expected to be docile and not ask too many questions," says Aruna Dhathathreyan, Raman Research Fellowship awardee and a biophysical chemist at the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI). "Even where women are allowed to study and work, some roles are still assigned to women by men. This often acts as a deterrent." Sujatha Venkatesh of Humboldt University in Berlin notes women scientists in India report they were high performers in school and their abilities were not doubted, but the objection to women's professional attainment was the possibility that they would mix with men freely and defy familial roles. Speaking of family, in India, childcare is seen as a woman's job, however, Venkatesh claims that almost all women working in Indian science credit a husband for supporting them through child-rearing and relocations.  

Jayaraman's article includes Venkatesh's breakdown of bias against women into specific factors: "The predominance of men in decision-making committees, male-centric environments that prioritise individualistic achievements over institutional work; male scientists in internationally visible activities as opposed to women who focus on 'invisible' academic teaching and supervision; the significance of informal networks and cliques, and biased decision-making in funding allocation and promotions."

Take the aforementioned annually awarded Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) prize - it has only been won by 15 women since its inception in 1958. Shubha Tole, who won the prize in 2010, finds mentorship is extremely important to support women and help them achieve greater things. In her lab, two postdocs have had their first babies, have had to take downtime, but have still produced quality work. She also maintains that the willingness to put up with sexism is reducing, as more and more women recognize what it is, and fewer of them "take it quietly."

The change must happen from within Indian STEM culture, but also within Indian society. It will be a long process of unlearning and relearning cultural norms - T. Ramasami, the now-retired architect of the government's KIRAN (Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing) program to "nurture postdoctural women through a career break and special needs such as childcare," claims gender parity will take 25-30 years, "purely on account of gestational time needed, for self-correction of the imbalance." But some organizations are already setting positive examples. TIFR features "women's cells," where women can reach out for childcare and the support of a work culture acclimatized to women. Many prominent figures in Indian STEM culture are working hard to raise the status of women scientists, and various branches of India's government have created initiatives such as the Department of Science and Technology's Women Scientists Schemes to grant fellowships, fund projects by women scientists, and offer opportunities for women scientists to obtain further training in their fields. Outside the lab, there are countless organizations dedicated to closing the gender gap in Indian society. Experiments of new affirmative action policies in India are showing positive trends in tackling women's equality as well.

Want to read about some awesome women scientists in India? See The Alternative's list here. Click here for an interview with Infosys Prize winner and Indian neuroscientist Shubha Tole. Don't forget to check out the official International Women's Day website for ways to take action, find events in your neck of the woods, and lots of resources.