Some findings from eight months of labhopping

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By Aashima Dogra

This week, we take a break to look back at what we’ve found in the eight months of around 50 interviews with women at scientific institutions in India for our project The Life of Science.

Our crowdfunding campaign is doing great – in fact, we hit our target a month in advance, though the campaign is still open (please continue to contribute, more funds -> more travels -> richer data). And last week, we gave a public lecture at IIT Delhi about the project and science communication in general. The discussion at the lectures emphasised the urgent need for dialogue. Here are some of the things we are reflecting on.

There ARE many women in Indian science

The numbers, though still unsatisfactory for a gender equal space, are much more than suggested by media reports, national awards for scientists and top management at scientific institutes. The lack of women in these publicly visible channels is breeding a misleading perception. This absence of role models for young women considering a future in science does no service to gender equality in the academic world. One of the questions asked at the lecture was: Are there any scientific disciplines that suit women more? The answer that we find is no. Women have been and are doing all kinds of research in this country. Examples found on this site show that women, if they possess will and support, can do any kind of research that interests them, be it biotechnology, geology, electronics, physics, sociology, economics, energy, mathematics, ecology…In a nutshell, where you are on the gender rainbow has nothing to do with the aptitude or capability to do science.

Still, not enough women scientists

There are very few women working at the scientific institutions we have visited. At one of India’s premier science institutes, Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, there are only 3 women among the seventy scientists. At Banaras Hindu University, there are only 2 women Deans (Kavita and Ramadevi) in seventeen faculties. More often than not it happens that we are met with the male boss who introduces us to one or two women in the department. When we ask: “Any others?”, “No, that’s it” is the response.

Is the problem starting in the classroom? As one researcher who works in the periphery of linguistics and electronics remarked during the open forum for women scientists that followed our talk at IIT-Delhi: “There are a handful of female students in class. And even these few do not ask any questions during my lectures. You feel like an anomaly [when your kind is so few in number].”

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Having a spouse in science helps

unnamed-1-2A significant proportion of our married subjects’ spouses are also scientists. Some of these couples, like Monica Bhatnagar, Kusala Rajendran and Prajakta Dandekar are in a scientific partnership with their spouses. Clearly, a ‘science-spouse’ helps women stay in science. Many of our subjects that run their own lab have IMG_2633said that a lot of their female students drop out after settling down with family life. Institutes committed to equality must stay open and make efforts to hire couples, like IISER Pune is doing. Many Indian institutes (including CSIR, some IITs and PRL) have made it difficult for worthy couples to be hired, citing controllable risks of nepotism during promotions or ‘ganging up’.

There is also a notion of ‘competition’ among spouses, as was discussed during the open forum. The panel at the event, composed of six women scientists; all but one, had science-spouses. They agreed that such a problem can be easily managed and have not come in the way of their science or personal lives.

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Support system is crucial

In the context of the Indian patriarchal family system – where most of the responsibility of childcare falls on the mother and family life is at the apex of a woman’s priorities – taking up research is hugely challenging. Choosing family life over research life is a major cause for dropping out of academia.

The scientists we have interviewed are either rebelling by putting off marriage or are benefitting from a support system that helps them manage their two lives. This support system comes in form of supportive parents (many help raise children), nannies, maids and importantly creche facilities provided by institutions.

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Most scientists we interviewed who mentor female researchers have expressed concern over family expectations of getting married as soon as M.Sc/PhD degree is done with and then abandoning research. As Mayurika Lahiri, a cancer biologist who started a daycare center at IISER Pune put it: “ Standing up to your parents is something most girls are not doing. Especially after so much education, what’s the point of abandoning your real interests?

There is also something to be said about ‘the need for women to take their own decisions’, which is the one clear scientific finding of studies on women empowerment (two of our subjects have reported this). When women are taking their own decisions about when to get married, when to have children and if to continue their research along with family life, they are more likely to stay in science.

Finding time to do science

Neetu Singh, assistant professor of biomedical sciences at IIT Delhi, who organised the open forum for women scientists had collected questions from female students in her department. Some of the recurring questions were: “Is it possible to pursue research as a 9-5 job? And how can one compete with those who put longer hours in the lab?” suggesting that the prospective scientists seem to be concerned about the time-consuming nature of research. To this, the panel responded: Science is truly not a 9-5 job. Like in Neetu’s case, sometimes a midnight lab visit is required to check on growing bacteria. But they all agreed that this is the best part. As Deepti Gupta, Professor of Textile Chemistry and head of Infrastructure Committee at IIT Delhi  said, “perhaps you can’t surf the internet as much.”

Neetu added: “But science is actually quite flexible, so you not bound from 9 -5. You have the freedom to do whatever it is you are interested in and manage your timings yourself. If I don’t feel like coming at 9, I won’t. I can come at 11.” Another panellist added that the flexibility in research work also offers work-from-home possibilities. Moreover, all research doesn’t have to be time-consuming. The panel resounded that students must examine their aptitude themselves and decide what makes them happy and choose based on what they truly want to do.

Managing aspirations

In the environment where girls are programmed for their role as caregivers, there seems to be an issue of self-image that doesn’t match with that of a scientist. Amitabha Bagchi,  Associate Professor in the Computer Science put it eloquently: “We need to tell prospective scientists that research doesn’t demand hundred percent confidence at every stage.” Sarita Ahlawat, another professor who bounced back into science, weighed with her own example: “I became a serious researcher at 35 after taking a break from science. I followed my husband everywhere and thought he was a better scientist than me. When he was planning his scientific path, I was planning for children: one child at 30, second at 32… Women need to demand help when they needed.” And the panel echoed. In our research, scientific mentors inside the laboratory have also shown to play a big role in bringing the numbers up.

Lack of openness

At a session on science communication with IIT-D students and a few faculty on October 19, we attempted to motivate young scientists to communicate their research as it happens. We provided some tools and tips to help them do this. We will be adding a list of resources here next week. As we travel from one institute to another, we find that science in India is largely operating under the same rules as a golf course: no outsiders allowed. This practice goes against the philosophy of science that is rooted within the sphere of society.

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The scientific method of hypothesis and inductive inquiry to get results must remain central while communicating science also. With this in mind, it is possible to break the cycle of unresponsive scientists and irresponsible journalists. Currently, in India, the link between society and science is broken. To fix this public engagement by scientists as blogs, updated websites, citizen science initiatives, outreach events and talking to science journalists can help.

Sexual Harassment is hush-hush

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A poignant moment during the open forum was when a researcher complained about sexually suggestive whistles on campus. To this, the panel responded with disbelief, shaking heads and denial on the basis of campus being a liberal place. “Such a thing would never happen, ” they said. Ten minutes later, incidents of physical sexual harassment were brought up by faculty and students, including one incident of harassment at a scientific conference involving a foreign victim. The participant protested against the victim-blaming that ensued after the conference incident. Moreover, the organisers failed to take proper action and the only outcome was a general announcement asking conferences attendees to “behave themselves”. Deepti Gupta, the only female committee head at IIT testified frankly. She said: Sexual harassment is a total taboo in committees. We don’t talk abt it. Don’t want to face it.” Such a scenario, where the authorities are resigned to sexual harassment is no safe place for anyone to be – man or woman, science or no science.

Big thankful hugs to the Amitabha Bagchi, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and novelist, who took the initiative to invite and organise the event at IIT. He was a wonderful host to us. Thanks to the Ambuj Sagar at policy studies department for providing the funds for us to get to Delhi. Also further thanks to all the people that came up to us offering their efforts to translate our reports into different languages. And lastly, much appreciation to the brave women who spoke up at the open forum about personal incidents of blatant sexual harassment taking place on campus, providing a much-needed break from disdainful claims of progressiveness.

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