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11th Feb Is International Day Of Women And Girls In Science. Where Do Indian Women Stand?

Posted: February 11, 2020

Veteran Indian scientist Kamala Sohonie was humiliated for her gender when she applied to IISc in 1933, by none other than C.V. Raman. Almost a century later, have things changed for Indian girls and women?

Today, February 11th is being observed as the ‘International Day of Women and Girls in Science’. Where do India’s girls and women feature in this field?

To achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs), as mandated by the United Nation, gender parity in science and technology cannot be emphasised enough. Let us look back at some nuggets from history in our country, of the journey of women into science.

It was in 1911 that my alma mater, the Indian Institute of Science, opened its doors to its students, and one hostel block was ready for male students who were admitted. However, it would take around three more decades for a women’s hostel to feature in the Institute’s plans. It has not been recorded who the first lady student actually was.

Accepting humiliation to be a science scholar

However, an anecdote that I read from the June 2018 issue of the magazine ‘Connect- with the Indian Institute of Science’ brought out by the institute, describes an instance of the struggles of Indian women students in the field of science.

I quote from the magazine, “Kamala Bhagvat later Kamala Sohonie, had just graduated with a first-class degree from Bombay University when she sought admission to IISc as a research student in biochemistry. C. V. Raman, who was Director at the time, infamously denied Sohonie entry because of her gender. It was only after great persistence from Sohonie and her family that he agreed to admit her, with humiliating restrictions.”

The conditions that were laid out were that she would be on a probation for one year. Her work would be recognised only if Raman was satisfied by the quality. In addition, she was told that she should not be a ‘distraction’ for fellow male scientists. It was a slight that Sohonie never forgot. It is another matter that Kamala Sohonie’s graduate work on the study of proteins in milk and legumes provided a lot of data to prevent malnutrition in India.

Years later, at a function organised by the Indian Women Scientists’ Association (IWSA), she is reported to have said: “Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman. This was a great insult to me. The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel laureate behaves in such a manner?” Perhaps the laureate was a product of his times. But when Sohonie left IISc in 1936 to study in Cambridge and it took her just 14 months to complete her PhD – a brilliant thesis which was just 40 pages.

Some global statistics

Let us look at some statistics. According to UNESCO, it is seen that while globally women are actively pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees and even outnumber men at these levels at 53%, their numbers drop off abruptly at PhD level. It is here that we see that suddenly, male graduates (57%) overtake women and the discrepancy widens further at senior research positions where men now represent 72% of the global pool. The high proportion of women in tertiary education is, thus, not necessarily translating into a greater presence in research.

As if the tilt in the real world was not enough, the reel world on screen reflects similar biases. The 2015 ‘Gender Bias Without Borders’ study by the Geena Davis Institute showed that only 12 percent of onscreen characters with an identifiable STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs were women.

So, have things changed from the times of Kamala Sohonie?

While global figures of women in scientific research points to 28%, in India the figures are at an abysmal 14%. This is disappointing as India has a rich tradition of producing exemplary women scientists. An early Indian woman doctorate in basic sciences was Janaki Ammal (in 1931) and the first woman to get her doctorate from an Indian university was Ashima Chatterjee, (in 1944).

So, what is the reason for this drop in numbers of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related pursuits? A recent study by the organisation, Kelly Global Workforce Insights (KGWI) that conducted a survey on Women in STEM, found that women in India tend to drop out of workforce at specific points in their lives, particularly around childbearing years and later at mid-management levels. This attrition, the report says, is largely due to the “double burden syndrome” of women who are constantly struggling to find a balance between work and family, in a culture where both men and women feel the family and household duties are primarily the woman’s responsibility. This is worrisome, as some good talent gets eliminated from the workforce and are ‘lost’ to science.

We need be more inclusive of career women’s needs

Fortunately, conversations around these issues are happening. At the 9th Women Science Congress (WSC) organised in January 2020, at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, there was mention of woman exclusive schemes mooted by Department of Science and Technology (DST) such as KIRAN (Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing), with the mandate to bring gender parity in S&T through gender mainstreaming.

Different programs and components of KIRAN like Women Scientist Scheme-A (WOS-A), Women Scientist Scheme-B (WOS-B) deal with various crucial issues (break in career due to maternity, familial responsibilities, relocation etc) faced by women scientists in their career path.

Support from infrastructure and family

The need of the hour in India is the creation of structures that can facilitate negotiation of a career in science in a professional manner, while maintaining a career-family balance. These measures may range from simple matters such as ensuring child-care facilities, to the difficult task of creating awareness in families and society as a whole.

Nothing can be closer to truth than the UNESCO report that says, “Gender equality is more than a question of justice or equity. Countries, businesses and institutions which create an enabling environment for women increase their innovative capacity and competitiveness. Gender equality will encourage new solutions and expand the scope of research. This should be considered a priority by all if the global community is serious about reaching the next set of development goals.”

Image source: shutterstock

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Sangeeta Venkatesh is the co-author of 'The Waste Issue' - an interactive workbook for school

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