Intersectionality and privilege in Indian science practice

Here’s what happened at a roundtable discussion organised by TheLifeofScience.com and 500 Women Scientists on International Women’s Day 2021

By Sayantan Datta

What does it mean to be privileged? What are the kinds of privileges that give one a headstart in science, especially in the context of India? What are the problems faced by people who want to pursue a career in science and come from various marginalised positions? How relevant is intersectionality in this discussion? How can intersectionality lead to a better science practice in India?

A roundtable discussion organised by TheLifeofScience.com (TLoS) and 500 Women Scientists (500WS), in collaboration with SciRio and STEMpeers, brought together people from diverse backgrounds and identities to deliberate on these questions. The discussion took place on March 7, a day before International Women’s Day. The panel was composed of undergraduate student Abigail Silversmith, computer scientist Sonajharia Minz, neuroscience PhD scholar Shalini Mahadev, researcher-activist Chayanika Shah, mathematician A Mani, astrophysicists Prajval Shastri and Manoj Puravankara; Reeteka Sud from 500WS introduced the event and Sayantan Datta from the TLoS team moderated it [Note: Introductions to all the panellists can be found in the transcript document below]. The event was attended by around 100 people.

Please watch the entire discussion here or here on YouTube.

A transcript of the entire discussion can be found here. Thanks to Namrata Rao for doing this!

Due to paucity of time, we could not take up all the questions raised by the audience. We sent them to our panellists; here are the answers we could gather:

Question (for A. Mani): Can you elaborate on your point on how science researchers/instructors blending regressive religious beliefs with science practices? And how it was detrimental especially with regard to this topic of intersectionality?

Mani:  It is a fact that many so-called ‘Indian scientists/teachers’ follow regressive religious beliefs, and practices. They simply see their ‘job’ as something that has nothing to do with their other practices such as diluting secular spaces and such. For example, somebody may decide to have religious programs (based on their own personal beliefs) as part of a professional event. This affects all those involved in the event. All the biases, irrationality and discriminatory attitudes associated with such events bear upon any evolving intersectionality in the context.

Question: What are some things we can do to reduce the “merit narrative” in science and the various ways that are used to mask prejudice?

Chayanika: I think one of the things to do is to redefine the meaning of ability and intelligence itself. There is such a premium to genius and intelligence that it completely masks all the exclusions. Exploring the various privileges that allow for this understanding of capability in science itself is one way to approach the problem. An expansion of the meaning of “doing science” from the narrow meaning of merely active research will also help bust these misconceived notions of “merit”.

Question: Can you elaborate on how scientific institutions or their syllabi aren’t disability- and neurodivergence-friendly, and what can be done to acknowledge and remedy the lack of spaces due to it? 

Chayanika: I think most science syllabi and education are homogeneous and do not really make any attempt at catering to populations diverse in their skills and abilities. I do not have answers to how to do it but this has been a matter of concern for various reasons.

Question: As someone in medicine, how do you feel about the healthcare system being queer excluding? As we’re taught to take histories and work out what is happening with the patient, do you feel that asking pronouns will be a step in the right direction?

Chayanika: I am not from medicine but am attempting to answer this question. I do think that a health care system that even openly recognises queer, trans and non-binary realities would be much more welcoming for queer and trans populations. There is a lot that medicine needs to learn about embodied lived realities of people. The sooner it does that the richer will be its approach to all human experience and more will be its reach for those excluded thus far.

Question: Over the past years, there are small pockets of women in STEM coming together to take up more space (online and offline, thanks also to many on the panel). How can such groups ensure that they don’t continue prominent systems of oppression?

Mani: Well, advocacy definitely helps. It helps people find their voice, and be vocal about issues. This is something women and LGBTQ people are not allowed to do in most domains of communication. I think such groups can make people think about issues and move the conversation forward. In their absence, various forms of oppression will stay put.

Question: A minor question – How can “popular science” and science outreach activities currently being taken out by various scientific institutions change in order to properly take into account the social structures and inequalities in place?

Mani: That is not a minor question. Unfortunately, only a few people are working in the direction and many are not visible in many senses. ‘Popular science’ can play a major role in dismantling oppressive social structures at all levels of sociopolitical and economic organization. Examples are not hard to construct.

Chayanika: Agree with Mani that this is not a minor question. What kind of ‘popular science’ is the crucial question. In today’s world where there is a glut of information, it is critical as to what is it that we popularise in the name of science. Science has to be understood as the whole enterprise and so it is important that its blind spots are spoken about with as much rigour as are the achievements. What are some questions asked and why are some others not asked is a good way to talk about the milieu within which scientific knowledge is located. Whose worldview and location is at the centre of the process determines what gets “seen” and what does not. These are good ways of talking of both the rootedness of science in the socio-political milieu and the complexity of scientific reasoning too!

About the author(s)
Sayantan Datta
Sayantan Datta

Sayantan (they/them) is a queer-trans science writer, journalist and communicator.