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.
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.
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.
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.