Tremors from Within – Part I

In this excerpt from 'Lab Hopping: Women Scientists in India': The story of the (at least) two-decade-old movement for equity in Indian science. Here's how women and trans persons in science started (and continue to) shake things from within.
By and | Published on Feb 11, 2024

The various government schemes for women in science, the GATI charter and the draft STIP did not emerge from a vacuum. Whatever their flaws, they are the fruits of a two- decade-old (at least) movement for equity in Indian science led by vocal and determined women and trans persons in science, who have been consistently shaking things up from within their institutes, academies and beyond. Rohini Godbole is one of them.

In an autobiographical essay published in the book Lilavati’s Daughters, Rohini recollects an incident from 1989. During one of her travels, she bumped into a Japanese scientist who was blown away upon realizing that she was the author of a well-known study in the field of elementary particle physics. ‘He bowed down to me in the middle of Frankfurt Airport and said “I respect that work!”. I must say it did wonders to the self-confidence,’ she wrote. At the time, Rohini was living a ‘double life’ in her own words. She was shuttling between the University of Mumbai, where she was a lecturer, and the TIFR, where she was doggedly pursuing research. Her perseverance paid off when, 12 years into her teaching job, she was invited to the historic IISc as a professor. Over the next 25 years, Rohini would go on to establish herself as one of the most iconic particle physicists from India. Along with German physicist Manuel Drees, she successfully predicted an important phenomenon that would aid the design of the next generation of linear electron–positron colliders. Her work would eventually lead experimental physicists to new avenues of particle physics research, an impact that gave Rohini unparalleled satisfaction and joy.

In 2021, Rohini was conferred the Ordre National du Mérite, one of the highest civilian honours bestowed by the French government. This was in recognition of not just her scientific achievements but also her commitment to the cause of women in science. Indeed, Rohini is one of the few prominent names in contemporary Indian science to have addressed the gender gap in a meaningful and sustained manner.

Growing up in a family of dynamic women and being educated in schools and colleges where she was routinely a top performer, Rohini had, for much of her life, never considered the idea of women doing science as anything out of the ordinary. ‘We were used to seeing women doing housework as well as following their dreams—dreams of learning, not necessarily jobs,’ she said, when we caught up for an online chat in 2021. Rohini became aware that gender bias was an issue in 2002 when she was asked to deliver a talk at the First International Conference on Women in Physics, held by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) in Paris. She had been invited as the Asian ‘success story’. She said, ‘It was the first time I thought about the subject. Not that I hadn’t experienced difficulties earlier, but I hadn’t thought about whether it could be because of my gender. While preparing for the talk, I realized that there were things in my own past that may have been influenced by my gender. I also realized that for every one of us who succeeded, there could have been many that did not.’

The conference in Paris fired Rohini up, and she began looking for opportunities to ignite a similar consciousness in her own country. At a meeting of the IASc, Rohini managed to get a two-hour slot for a discussion on women in science. Few people showed up, and those who did were not entirely convinced.

‘People were looking around and saying ‘Do we really need to discuss this? Do we really have such a small number in the academy?’ I remember sitting there with the academy book in my hand, turning the pages and counting. When among 900 fellows, you see so few [women], that’s when it hits home . . .’

Being an elected fellow of the IASc and INSA academies, Rohini had the reach to make something happen. She, along with a few others, convinced the then INSA President M. S. Valiathan to identify ‘Science Career for Women’ as a ‘thrust area for investigation’. This led to the constitution of a committee of nine scientists, chaired by nutritional biochemist Mahtab Bamji, who was an early and important contributor to improving the representation of women in Indian science. Rohini was part of this committee. Over the next year, the committee, in partnership with social scientists at Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey (SNDT) University in Mumbai, produced a comprehensive report titled ‘Science Career for Indian Women: An examination of Indian women’s access to and retention in scientific careers’. This was the first official study on women in science sponsored by the Indian government’s DST and it was released in 2004. In Rohini’s words, ‘This was the beginning.’

It’s not as if the DST was ignorant of the gender gap until then, but they had so far gotten away with women-only schemes and awards, which seemed more altruistic in nature than based on any evidence of bias. The INSA report was a much-needed wake-up call. In it, the committee used data from the UGC to point out a unique aspect of the gender gap in Indian science: While the problem in the West was that schoolgirls did not choose science when they went to university, this was less of an issue in India. Many children did, of course, drop out of science during school, but the gender gap at this stage was not stark. The more disproportionate attrition of women was happening post-higher education when it was time to find jobs. The situation stayed bleak for women who managed to get jobs but were looking to advance their careers. The INSA report also included a survey undertaken by SNDT University’s social scientists whose results showed that gender insensitivity and discrimination in the workplace were real problems. The survey also inferred that the study of science by women was a privilege of those from urban areas and upper castes. Evidence of caste-based harassment emerged from the interviews they conducted. For example, the report notes:

The upper caste lab attendants referred to a Dalit woman professor as Bai, whereas the senior male professors were called ‘Sir’. While Bai when literally translated refers to a lady, in common usage it means a woman domestic help. It was obviously a way of getting back at the caste of the woman professor by the upper caste employees.

The document ended with a set of recommendations to improve the status of women in science.

The INSA report created a stir strong enough for the DST to respond with the formation of a task force. This task force’s objective was to enable the implementation of the recommendations of the INSA report. Over the next three years, the task force conducted 10 meetings across the country with teachers and students of science and also solicited feedback from the public via advertisements.

Meanwhile, in 2003, the IASc academy formed its own committee on ‘Women in Science’ (WiS). The IASc committee, chaired by Rohini, came up with a set of 14 action points, followed by a panel to carry out those recommendations. The IASc’s WiS panel focused not on studies as the INSA had done, but on on-ground activities such as seminars. ‘These seminars would feature women scientists talking not just about women in science, but about top-class research,’ said Rohini.

The IASc’s most popular contribution was Lilavati’s Daughters, a collection of 98 biographical and autobiographical essays about women scientists in India in the past as well as in the present. Lilavati’s Daughters is largely a labour of love for Rohini and her friend and colleague Ram Ramaswamy. The title is an ode to mathematician Bhaskara’s 1150 AD treatise. Lilavati, in which he writes about math problems in the form of poetry addressed to his daughter Lilavati.

Lilavati’s Daughters came out in 2008 and created a lasting impact on the scientific community. which, until then, was starved of resources and stories about women scientists in the country. These essays shone the light on a slew of talented voices in science and also made talking points about common challenges faced by women in their scientific trajectories. It was subsequently translated into several Indian languages and also edited into a version targeted at younger audiences, titled The Girl’s Guide to a Life in Science.

Another significant event took place the same year. The Mahtab Bamji-led DST task force organized a first-of-its-kind national conference of women in science on International Women’s Day at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi. The conference featured an audience of over 1200 women scientists, teachers, students and entrepreneurs— with expertise ranging from cell biology and brain function to climate change and aeronautics—as well as high-profile politicians, including the then President Pratibha Patil. Besides an exhaustive range of technical sessions, there were also sessions on policy issues, opportunities and issues such as sexual harassment in academia.

This conference generated some criticism from scientists who questioned the effectiveness of its women-only nature. In a report in Current Science, scientists Vineeta Bal and Vinita Sharma wrote:

The only time a few men were present during the two- day conference was at the inauguration. In fact, during an interactive session, a pointed comment was made about the absence of men, with women wondering whether they were talking amongst themselves, and whether talking to the converts has any relevance at all . . . While such conferences serve the purpose of providing exposure to competent work done by women scientists and technologists to the world, in general, absence of male colleagues meant that women’s work and achievements went unnoticed by male colleagues, competitors and bosses . . . Absence of male colleagues from this conference, thus defeated part of the purpose of the showcasing effort. The lesson to learn from this effort is not to organize women-only conferences, but to strive for a near-equal representation of both the sexes as speakers and participants, even if that has to be achieved by affirmative action!

Criticism notwithstanding, something significant happened at this conference. Then Union Minister for Science and Technology, Kapil Sibal, came on stage with some good news. He promised financial support to establish crèches at all the DST-funded institutes; flexible working hours and work- from-home options for women scientists with young children; women-specific research grants and on-campus residential accommodation for women scientists. He emphasized that all scientific departments would need to ensure that these measures are implemented. These were all recommendations that had been made in the INSA report.

That should have been a major breakthrough in India’s movement for women’s equality in science, but it wasn’t. Rohini remembers the minister’s announcement during the conference. She recalled that it led to the formation of the Standing Committee of the Government of India for Women in Science in 2009. However, the committee, which she was a part of, never met. The announced promises weren’t converted to a ministerial order and, thereby, did not materialize.

The DST task force was not idle at this time. Since its formation in 2005, it had been going to great lengths trying to reach all corners of the country. The group published a report in 2009 on the basis of feedback received in the ten meetings they held across the country. Titled ‘Evaluating and Enhancing Women’s Participation in Scientific and Technological Research: The Indian Initiatives’, the report included chapters on work done in the past, an update on the status quo (five years had passed since INSA’s report), as well as another list of recommendations.

Evidence of systemic issues was piling up with every study and report being published, and by the end of the aughts, the atmosphere was thick with the anticipation of change. Fresh from the success of Lilavati’s Daughters, Ram Ramaswamy and Rohini Godbole often spoke with each other about what more was needed. They knew that Lilavati’s Daughters was just anecdotal and needed more analysis. Similarly veined discussions between natural and social scientists led to the commissioning of an ambitious survey that the IASc undertook along with the NIAS. According to Rohini, who co-authored the resultant report with Anitha Kurup, Maithreyi R. and Kantharaju B., the intention of the survey was simple: to find out why women leave science. For this, they would need to first build a sizable database of women with PhDs in science, including a substantial number of women who had left science. Rohini had a strategy in mind:

‘I thought the best way to find women who left is via their advisors. So I sent an email to all fellows of the academy, requesting a list of their current and past women PhD students and what they are doing today. I must tell you I didn’t get too much traction with this simple request. It took quite some perseverance.’

The team from IASc and NIAS managed to create a database with nearly 2000 women with PhDs in science, engineering or medicine from research institutes, universities and private and government-owned industries. The results of their study, published in 2010, were highly illuminating. It provided evidence for unspoken suspicions, upturned myths and revealed surprising realities about the gender gap in science in India; all backed by something that all policymakers claim to love—data.

Arguably, the biggest achievement of the study was its refutation of the lazy assumption by policymakers that societal/family responsibility was the singular factor behind the attrition of women from science. We will elaborate on this in the next chapter.

Embedded in the IASc–NIAS study were critiques of existing policies, especially ones that perpetuate stereotypical gender roles and stigmatize women. The authors pushed for policy-level changes. They recommended more transparency in selection and evaluation; a targeted time-based recruiting system at institutes with poor representation of women; mandatory disclosure of gender breakdown in all organizations; compulsory composition of one-third of women members on committees and hiring of spouses in the same organization. Rohini and her co-authors also recommended that WOS-A-like schemes be modified to offer more long-term working opportunities for women who are returning after a break. They reminded policymakers that the issue was complex and still relatively unstudied, so the periodic review of processes was crucial to make sure everything was on the right track.

After this flurry of efforts by natural and social scientists to provide a solid bed of resources and data, there was great expectation for some sort of action. Something, surely, had to happen. Sadly, the response from institutions and government leaders did not go beyond tokenistic gestures to appease women scientists. More reports trickled in over the next decade, but by 2020, it seemed the academies had lost their momentum and stopped pushing.

‘In India, our policies are not too bad—the problem is that often people are more interested in starting new initiatives than in enforcing existing policies,’ said Shobhana Narasimhan, a physicist studying computational nanoscience at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, who has served on many of the WiS committees and also the DST’s task force for women in science. Shobhana is frustrated every time she sees the government launch new schemes with great fanfare rather than revise and review the efforts that already exist.

‘We don’t have a pay gap (i.e., in academia, men and women who perform the same job are paid the same salary), we have rules mandating crèches and our maternity leave is reasonably generous. But no one checks if a place has a crèche, what the quality of it is, and who is using it. Maternity leave ends up being used as an excuse not to hire women. Spousal hiring, age limits, these things continue. No one does or says anything. There is a lot of complacency and self-congratulation,’ she said.

Rohini chalks it down to apathy: ‘I don’t think people even read the [IASc–NIAS] survey. We need more support from the men in the community and more commitment. They have to realize that this is not just for women, it’s for the benefit of science.’ While Rohini is unsure whether or not the situation will change, developments in 2019 have given her dream of equality new life. She led the team that came up with the E&I chapter of the STIP 2020 draft, and it’s something she is cautiously excited about.

‘The drawback of previous initiatives is that they were only for women. The measures were voluntary and there was no incentive for the institutes to implement them,’ she said. ‘But if STIP becomes a government policy, people will take notice. All departments will have to accept it, irrespective of who the head is. Everyone will have to consider the policy guidelines while designing programmes.’ She is buoyed by the possibility that the policy will encourage institutes to establish their own gender and equity offices. ‘This is the first time any Indian policy has a chapter on equity and inclusion. This is fantastic!’

When Rohini said she was optimistic that STIP 2020 could be a new beginning, we wondered if this was giving her any déjà vu. Didn’t the INSA report from 2004, too, seem like just the beginning? And Lilavati’s Daughters as well? Did it not seem like the start of something good? Why is it that nearly two decades after our first steps into dealing with the gender gap in Indian science, we are still only making new beginnings?

[Note: The above text — made public on the International Day for Women and Girls in Science 2024 —  is an excerpt from the chapter named ‘Tremors from Within’ in the book Lab Hopping: A Journey to Find India’s Women in Science, authored by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, published by Penguin Books in 2023. You can purchase the book here. We’ll share the rest of the chapter in parts soon!

Images in the featured graphic sourced from Shiv Nadar University, National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, TedX, International Peace Research Initiative , Britannica, NPTEL.]

About the author(s)

Aashima is a freelance science communicator, author and editor. She co-founded in 2016.

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