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I talked to and met Indian women in science for years. And this is what they told me

More than introducing token awards to mark Women’s Day, sensitising accomplished men in science against everyday sexism may help bridge the gender gap.

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I have told my husband, I will dye my hair when I win the Nobel Prize,” says Sivapriya Kirubakaran, who works on developing novel cancer drugs, has four patents to her credit and over a dozen research papers. And yet, she feels that only the highest recognition in the scientific world would justify this personal choice of changing her hair colour.

Kirubakaran, like many other women in the field of science, is acutely conscious about how to present herself. In a profession that is predominantly led by men, women constantly struggle with not being taken seriously.

Despite having worked at the Harvard Medical School previously, she keeps her hair in a traditional long braid, sceptical that switching to a trendier haircut or adding colour would dilute her image as a serious scientist.

Still, Kirubakaran is among the more privileged scientists. At IIT Gandhinagar, she was able to get immense support and encouragement to pursue her research project during her pregnancy.

Sudhir Jain, Director of IIT Gandhinagar, has ensured that the faculty can balance their duties as parents as well as researchers, having added a creche inside the academic building. This allowed Kirubakaran to quickly join back work after giving birth to her child. She recalls that while working in her lab she could take time out and keep a check on her infant.

Also read: Developing anti-cancer drugs to making sugar sweeter — 5 women trailblazers in science

A lot has to change

However, not all men who hold leadership positions in science have the same outlook when it comes to including women.

At IIT Mandi a couple of years ago, a reputed scientist working in the field of earth sciences, who had convened an international conference, where I was also present, explained the absence of women speakers at the event by saying that they are not able to come to outstation meetings “because they have to cook for their husbands.” After some thought, he added, “There are hardly any women in this field.”

At the same conference, however, arrangements were made for US geophysicist Roger Bilham, who had been denied a visa, to make his presentation via a video call.

Such incidents show that there is a stark difference in how far male scientists are willing to go to accommodate their male colleagues while dismissing their female colleagues in the same setting.

Jaishri Sanwal, a noted geologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru later said to me at this conference, “they only remember us on Women’s Day.”

“We are expected to strike a work-life balance, take care of our families and also do well in our career. And then we are compared to men who did not have to think about any of this,” Sanwal said. Noting the regular absence of women from scientific panel discussions she said it is only after a woman retires, that she gets some recognition.

Also read: These are the women in science to watch out for in India today

Old men club

On most occasions, scientific discussions are limited to the ‘old men’s club’. Chandrima Shaha, who became the first woman to head the Indian National Science Academy this year, also said that as a young scientist she ‘felt invisible’.

“Initially, when we started our careers, nobody would shake hands with women scientists,” Shaha had told ThePrint in an earlier interview.

While this may have changed to a great extent with more women excelling in all streams of sciences, the gender divide among scientists remains starkly visible today.

Take the Ministry of Earth Sciences for example. At every event, there is usually a panel of male scientists who deliver their speeches and presentations. The women scientists are dressed up in traditional attire, and come on stage only to sing opening hymns, hand bouquets to the panellists, or help them light the ceremonial candles.

Also read: Cancer cure, fascination for biology, neuroscience — what drew these women to science

A gender-biased prism

At the various science conferences that I have attended over the years, I have observed how differently an audience treats a woman.

If a presentation is given by a man, the audience reacts with praises, doubts or queries. In case it is a woman, the reactions are usually suggestions for improvements or pointing out mistakes.

Even on social media, women scientists tend to get patronising messages from men who are often less accomplished. For example, earlier this year, Anita Sengupta, a former NASA scientist credited with developing a supersonic parachute that helped put the US space agency’s Curiosity rover on Mars, spoke out on being ‘mansplained’ planetary sciences on Twitter.

While many scientists have successfully overcome the omnipresent patriarchy to achieve their goals, the invisible hurdles at every step need to be addressed to ensure more women opt for studying sciences and are not compelled to leave their careers midway.

One of the most pressing needs of the hour is to recognise that the entire professional system is designed on the assumption that there is always a person back home taking care of an employee’s domestic chores and parenting responsibilities.

Making the laboratory more gender-inclusive can perhaps be as simple as providing child care services for all research scholars.

But more than making institutional changes or introducing token awards or schemes to mark a Women’s Day, programmes to sensitise accomplished men in science on everyday sexism may go a long way in bridging the gender gap.

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  1. There is a false assumption implied in this article: that the only way to a fulfilling life is having a successful career. During most of human history most of the people weren’t well educated and lead comfortable lives, but they were not living in despair and depression. We are richer than any time in history but have more people suffering from depression. The other often overlooked fact is that men and women are different and make different choices: This fact is unpalatable to feminists. They want every women and men conform to their worldview. You can see how vicious they are towards women who chose to stay at home to take care of kids. This is a kind of soft tyranny. Women, nowadays, have the same access as men to education and every other thing. They can become whatever they want. What else need to be done? Force every women to become scientists, engineers, and CEOs. And the other interesting thing about feminists is they are always cribbing about there being not enough women in STEM, top positions in Fortune 500 companies and politics, but they’re very silent about the near absence of women in border security force, bricklaying, drainage cleaning, and other dangerous occupations. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against women becoming scientists and CEOs. Give good quality education to everyone at school and inform everyone of the opportunities they have. Let them make a choice.

    • Dear Mr Antony,
      All the women quoted in this article have already made a choice of being in STEM fields. They are not being forced. They are all doing great work and yet facing sexism.
      Feminists don’t want anyone to be involved in drainage cleaning. It is not considered an empowering job for either men or women. So your comment does not make sense. Some feminists have been asking for women to be included in security forces so your knowledge in the matter is inadequate.

      • Dear Mr Roy,
        First of all I wasn’t directly critiquing the what’s written in the article. I was arguing against the assumption implied in these kinds of articles. Please look at the first sentence. The whole argument is premised on that.
        Here is my response to your reply:
        “They are all doing great work and yet facing sexism.”
        That’s what they are claiming. It can very well be the case that their research is not good enough. Have you heard of the Dunning-kruger effect? It’s silly to claim that every hurdles women face is because of sexism. The whole article is anecdotal and one-sided. Where are the statements of accusees?
        Crying sexism for everything is silly. Many things have been put in place to make it easy for women to climb the ladder: quotas, scholarships. (I’m not against any of these things. Let’s make things easy for them). However, allotting quotas implies that women are inferior to men. That is sexism. It implies that women are not capable of competing with men, so we have to make some concessions.
        I find it very hard to believe them because, if indeed they’ve been denied those opportunities due to sexism the male scientists would really have been in trouble. Feminists are vicious. You know what happened to Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate for making an innocuous comment? He lost all his positions overnight. Lawrence summers had to step down as Harvard’s president for presenting scientific data as to why there’s a scarcity of women in sciences. If indeed these women had been discriminated because of their chromosomes, the Male scientists would have lost their job now. That’s how powerful and nasty feminists are nowadays. Even many women find feminism reprehensible.

        Marie curie never seemed to have complained of sexism. She was good, so her research was recognized. During those times people thought that women cannot do science well, but that’s not the case now. Einstein was denied Nobel prize for ‘theory of relativity’ because of some men like Gullstrand. Greger mendel’s painstaking research was thrown in trash by other men. At the same time work done by Marie curie was celebrated. What does this all say? People can be nasty to each other regardless of sex. Few groups are nastier than third-wave feminists.

        “Feminists don’t want anyone to be involved in drainage cleaning ”

        There are feminists who wish openly the death of most men. Haven’t you seen books like “women are from venus, Men are from HELL?” Drainage cleaning is more empowering than being ‘unemployed’ or being an actress for instance, which is mostly visual prostitution (there are good decent movies, which are rare. A country that pledges “girls are sisters” is using girls for titillation. We should be ashamed of ourselves.)

        “Some feminists have been asking for women to be included in security forces so your knowledge in the matter is inadequate.”

        My point is this: feminists are very loud when it comes asking for quotas in parliament and other positions of power, but they’re not 1/100th as loud for quotas in army and other dangerous jobs. Feminists want power. But if you want to eliminate structural inequality, there should be equality across the board, which they are very not very interested in. (And I don’t know how many fathers would want to put their daughters in harm’s way or how many husbands, if they see hear some strange noise at night, would want their wives to go check 50% of the times. In my opinion women should not be sent to such dangerous jobs.)

  2. What a terribly unfortunate attitude to have towards women scientists Yash Kansal. This is precisely the problem. Misogyny is so very firmly embedded in the minds of so many Indian men that a woman’s success HAS to be attributed to her incompetence, and nothing else. It’s so sad that we are still raising men like these

  3. Actually I have worked as a research assistant in a premier science institute, and one problem I faced was the lack of a decent toilet. The key to the only toilet was in the admin office, but if I arrived early to beat traffic (which was often the case), I had to wait for the admin office to open.

    Administrations are so inept at providing even basic facilities for women that and power structures so blind, quite frankly they don’t deserve the genius of women in this country.

  4. If you want to be a scientist and you are competent.
    Everything else is just an excuse.

    Maybe they aren’t competent enough and are present just as a token like the IIT reservation

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