A Manifesto for Indian Women in Science by a Woman in Science

Prabhavathy Devan offers suggestions to make postdocs in India, women-friendly.
By | Published on Mar 11, 2019

[Editor’s Note: Since we published this article on March 11, there has been some discussion about parts of this ‘manifesto’ by Prabhavathy. Firstly, we should point out that opinions from guest contributors are not meant to be endorsements. We believe in maintaining the range of viewpoints by women in science aired on this platform simply because these opinions exist in the community and we cannot wish them away. They serve as important reminders of the far-from-ideal structures of the society we live in, leading to different kinds of expectations from troubled women scientists in India. However, to set Prabhavathy’s context right, we will be expediting the publishing of her personal story (it has been published here!). And after that, we will open the doors to alternative points-of-view so that this discussion can go forward in the most constructive way possible. Stay tuned!]

WHO: Prabhavathy Devan
WHAT: SERB National Postdoc Fellow, Stem Cell Biologist
WHERE: Jyotsna Dhawan’s Lab, CSIR-Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Hyderabad

Prabhavathy is a postdoc who works in the Muscle Stem Cell lab at CSIR-Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology(CCMB), studying regeneration and repair of skeletal muscles.

Recently I was one of the organisers of the 2nd National Postdoc Symposium which was held at CCMB from 3rd to 5th October, 2018. We had many discussions over options available in the Indian science landscape including possible career choices other than academia. Some hope was expressed during these discussions but there were also concerns since there are many uncertainties around the ‘alternative’ career options for doctorates and post-doctorates that are still emerging and lack established positions. At the meeting, I found women postdocs who are married or starting a family to be despondent about their future in science. Many had succumbed to the fact that lack of continuous family support and absence of conducive work environments limit their chances of making it in academia and/or sustain it successfully on par with their male counterparts.

My experience at the meeting prompted me to put down some suggestions for concrete working arrangements as part of research schemes that can help women retain their interest and contribution to science. I also talk here from personal experience; I too sail in the same boat as many of the dejected women I heard from at the meeting.

The author, Prabhavathy(middle), at the symposium.

While women account for nearly 50% of undergraduate and postgraduate degree-holders, this trend is not seen in higher levels of education. Less than 30% of these women have sustained research career in STEM, according to the latest update on the status of women in science by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. They are an even smaller minority when it comes to publishing papers, forging international collaborations and achieving mobility, which eventually hinders their future academic career prospects.

This inequity is attributed mainly to cultural issues like marriage and associated parenting years and later the inflexible working conditions. It is repeated at several meetings, especially by cis-men, that the leaky pipeline exists due to women’s premeditated or inadvertent personal choices. The fact remains that women are bound by cultural expectations and not necessarily their own choice of taking complete responsibility for parenting. Being oblivious to this downplays the potential of women pursuing STEM. When women are suitable and willing to take up science, they deserve to be integrated into the system and seen as equal contributors as men. Schemes must integrate women-friendly arrangements by default and not as provisions. Further, it is not true that government schemes even have enough ‘provisions’ for women. To transform, women with children have to be viewed as the norm in the workplace.

Barriers in the academic career path

Discussions at the 2nd National Postdoc Symposium 2018 at CSIR-CCMB, Hyderabad.

Carefully maneuvering oneself through equally-demanding work and home routines is a daily chore for many women researchers. The ‘maternal wall’ is a stumbling block in women’s performance and progress as her family takes away more of her time. In this scenario, discussing how to achieve work-life balance is not useful since the main challenge is that women are still expected to work on par with men and fit into the system of ‘superheroes’ without providing them with a flexible working environment and accommodating real-life situations women have to deal with.

A workplace environment that is indifferent to the challenges women face in the household pushes them to drop out of academia and pick other career paths. In addition, exasperation with the research culture, deficient leadership, uncertain funding system and lack of sufficient career advancement opportunities also lead many women into leaving academia as they feel overburdened by the time/energy spent on fighting against everyday odds to make it in research.

Implicit biases and stereotypes during the hiring process worsen the situation. The process is highly opaque and institute-specific; preferences are given to previously-decided internal candidates. Only female candidates are asked questions about managing work and life, responses to which are likely to go against their chances of being hired. Questions irrelevant to academic work such as if they are on their own and if they have any family support are also brought up. Then there is the question ‘how do you envision your growth here in another 10 years if given an opportunity?’ How is this question justified if to maintain productivity, female researchers have to work in a highly efficient manner; and have less time to accomplish the same tasks as their male counterparts? A more relevant question would be: “Whether the institution has a support system to retain women for a longer period of time?”

Are the employers mindful of facilitating re-entry of women from career breaks?

In most developed and developing countries, women pursuing a career in science have access to a variety of resources and fora such as constant upskilling to empower themselves for employment after a break. India also has a few. However, the legacy of such programs in our country is uncertain. After the re-entry schemes end, the women are at high risk of being left behind without a permanent position at any institute. The research community in India needs to participate in executing such programmes sensibly that are tailored to promote the participation of women in science but might be counter-productive. Reentry schemes are very valuable since they give women confidence that re-entry is possible at any stage if they have sustained the zeal and talent. While these schemes are operational, the safety and progress of the children of these women also need to be ensured.

Women need an empathetic organisation that provides us with space to grow. Promoting and retaining women in science requires a conscious effort to transform workplaces involving women and men employees at universities and research institutes.

Increasing public awareness and endorsing those pursuing a career in science is also necessary to raise the profile of women in the different sectors of STEM.

Ultimately, creating a gender-equal and diverse research community will need science policy makers to innovate so as to align with our Indian family and cultural values.

What do we need to do as a community?

Institutional cultural change is a MUST to recognise women as an essential part of their workforce. This can be taken up by the higher authorities in the institutions without needing any government policy to be implemented.

The only way to bring work-cultural change is to have structural changes in the workplace and create room for gender-oriented specific action plans and schemes with regular evaluation processes. A rigorous follow-up plan and effective data collection process is imperative to re-evaluate and improve measures. Realising any productive change for women in science, among institutions, will, in turn, give a gross picture of the nation.

A national level women research council can ensure gender-balanced recruitment and funding and rewarding policies as well as professional career development resources to empower women in science.

In today’s overcrowded labour market, it is not possible for many researchers to have academic careers. Transitioning to other careers that offer substantial growth is unavoidable. Hence, it is equally significant for government schemes to accommodate initiatives to make alternative careers such as science journalism, science education, intellectual property rights and patent filing, and research administration, attractive and valuable by creating more job openings for women.

We need to have a dedicated Society for Indian Women in Science with spirited members from both academia and industry to promote and facilitate women in research. Outreach activities like educational conferences, workshops and e-mentor schemes for the next generation of girl students that talk about women in STEM, the challenges they faced and their contributions should be conducted.

Participants at the 2nd National Postdoc Symposium 2018 at CSIR-CCMB, Hyderabad.

Action plan for women postdocs

Many permanent employees get the benefits of different allowances such as home loans, medical allowance for the family, personal loan, ESI and PPF. The postdocs are however classified as skilled trainees and are excluded. We need to have committees in the workplace with women and for the women to ensure that the work culture is holistic for all women.

Some suggestions  are listed below:

  1. High quality, affordable daycare.
  2. Medical allowance for the family to ensure that postdocs don’t end up spending their meagre salary in meeting the family needs.
  3. Expanding benefit programs for postdocs and inclusive programs specifically to address the concerns of women postdocs. These benefits should be comparable to that of permanent staff. Fellowships are disbursed only based on salary funding sources which get delayed invariably leaving the research fellows in a financial crisis. Core funds from the institute should be used to help postdocs to get their salaries on time.
  4. Women Empowerment Schemes should be generous about the duration of the project given to women candidates due to family responsibilities; for example, provide a year or two more for women. An option of part-time tenure should be introduced when they have no family support and are single parents. It is imperative to reduce their vulnerabilities and focus on holistic empowerment including child care, schooling, transport, subsidized food, medical care and upskilling with the aim of enhancing the productivity of women by making their lives safe and secure.
  5. Collaboration among faculty between and within institutions should be made easier; especially team projects must be offered to women postdocs.
  6. Dedicated technical assistance either through internal funds or from the project to make up for time lost to family responsibilities of postdocs.
  7. Mentors need to be receptive to the family responsibilities of women researchers and help by giving them team projects.
  8. Funding agencies should introduce schemes as part of the grant where women, based on their performance, are offered permanent positions or encouraged to take on roles in semi-independent projects as a talent retention measure. This can avoid women leaving a project at the verge of finishing or not being able to take a leading position.

What can we do as women?

There are some initiatives women can take without breaking cultural and family values.

  1. Important to interact with women career role models in our institutions who have negotiated a successful career with ease. The paucity of such women in leadership positions who have sought greater heights in their career should be overcome.
  2. Networking to learn about various options and opportunities are needed. A sisterhood that shares smart ways and means to maintain a career will go along way in helping each other be mindful of supportive resources.
  3. A highly competitive field can require tough personal choices. What these choices are needs to be discussed openly.
  4. Unrelenting focus and commitment within your time in the work ensures that you are more productive than those who work through the night.
  5. Affirm, untiringly to yourself, “I am aware of the biases and they do not affect me. Be resilient about the unconscious bias”.
  6. Believe strongly that you are creative, competitive, assertive and passionate about pursuing a career in science.
  7. Constantly redefine the purpose of your scientific research. Find out your emotional/societal investment and bring in your scientific temper into the work.
  8. Be candid about your ambitions and be realistic of what can be achieved within your support system and the timeline. Recording your progress and understanding the learning curve in real time is crucial to make the right career choice.

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