I write this piece with some trepidation. To explain this, let me relate how a (male) colleague reacted when he learnt that I would be attending a conference on women in science. “Why are you doing this?”, he asked. “Don’t you realise that you risk becoming known as a woman in physics, rather than a physicist? This could be disastrous for your career.”
Indeed, I very much wish to be identified by my peers as a physicist first. However, I do believe that in India (as everywhere in the world), we do have a problem: there are too few women in science
Many Indians are surprised to find that in the supposedly liberal West, it is not uncommon to encounter the view that women simply do not have the intellectual ability to carry out complex thought processes required for scientific research (remember the notorious case of Larry Summers, President of Harvard?). Leaving aside the regrettable mindset of the male IIT student — describing which would require a whole other article — Indians in general do not seem to find it hard to accept that women can be highly intelligent. We are not surprised when girls top the boards. But we do seem to feel strongly that a woman’s primary societal role is to be a wife and mother. Domestic demands are the biggest obstacle to Indian women pursuing careers in science.
Thus, though the fraction of female students is quite high up until the PhD level in most scientific disciplines, the percentage of women faculty at prestigious institutions is usually less than 10 per cent. Moreover, they have to deal in a chilly climate at work; this may be because people in our changing society are still figuring out how men and women should behave when they work together.
In the past couple of years, we have started facing up to the problem of sexual harassment. Despite the fact that there is a broad consensus in the scientific community that harassment is unacceptable, there is an enormous reluctance to believe that such incidents do occur — and when they occur, they are often dealt with by ignoring or excusing them.
In addition, there is a wide range of other behaviour that makes things difficult for women in science. For example, I have heard scientists (both male and female) say that they will not select women to be their students. They cite many reasons for this: women are not strong enough to lift heavy equipment, they are not committed enough, they do not take risks, they will inevitably get married, then quit science, thereby wasting the professor’s efforts.
Finally, there are also subtler factors that come into play. Even in a supposedly merit-based field like science, advancement can depend a lot on one’s contacts, the socialising that takes place over a drink after work. Women scientists are often excluded from these interactions, and their careers can suffer as a result.
In today’s global economy, it is vital that India stays competitive in the scientific arena. We will not be able to achieve this if half of our population is unable to contribute to this effort simply by virtue of their gender. Which is why I look forward to the day when the widely-recognized symbol of achievement by Indian women is not a Miss Universe or Miss World, but a female molecular biologist or a chemical engineer....