Tremors from Within – Part II

In this excerpt from 'Lab Hopping: Women Scientists in India': The story of what it means to advocate for women in science in India. This story traverses efforts towards ensuring equitable representation of women in conferences and publications.
By and | Published on Feb 15, 2024

(Read the first part here.)

Until things change at the policy implementation level, the burden of demanding equality for women in science continues to rest on the shoulders of women themselves. We met many women in science who have, in some way or another, become agents of change. One popular target area for individual scientists is gender diversity during scientific events. Conferences are an extremely useful medium for scientists to be noticed in their respective fields as well as to make potentially career-altering connections. Being invited as a speaker is a huge opportunity but for some reason, one that is hard to come by for most women scientists. When Shobhana Narasimhan was invited in 2017 by the ICTP to organize their 18th Total Energy Workshop in Trieste, Italy, she and her two co-organizers—also women—decided to see if they could do something about the biennial conference’s historically skewed gender ratio. She said, ‘We made a special effort to think of women speakers. We nominated scientists who were ignored in the past for reasons such as ‘she has young children’ or ‘she would never agree to come and talk’, but we picked them anyway’. It was then up to the conference’s advisory committee to vote on and finalize the speaker list. Shobhana was pleased to see several women get chosen, eventually.

‘It’s not like we told them to vote for women. We just made sure many of the nominees were women. In the end, we received feedback that it was an excellent high-standard conference, one of the best so far.’

That year, the physics conference had seven women speakers (out of 23 speakers). While still nowhere close to parity, it was a significant increase from the previous editions, which never had more than four women speakers.

Shobhana is inspired by fellow scientists who walk the talk when it comes to the diversity issue—women like her who refuse to be tolerant of sexist comments and ‘manels’ (a popular way to describe a panel consisting of only cis males). In a public lecture, she likened these women to the insects buzzing around a big bull (the powerful male boss), saying, ‘I’m not sure about change, but at least we could irritate him.’ Shobhana brought up the example of a senior scientist friend abroad who boycotts conferences that do not have enough women speakers. We asked her what would happen if somebody took such a stand in India. ‘I don’t know if the reaction would be good,’ she admitted, recalling being chastised by senior men for suggesting that all conferences require a certain percentage of women speakers in order to receive funding. Shobhana has, on occasion, been told off by the higher-ups but that doesn’t stop her from calling out their attitudes. ‘It’s not a comfortable position to be in,’ she said.

‘Even now, people warn me that doing this will hurt my career. They ask me why everything is about gender for me. It’s awkward because I have to continue to work with these people, even if I find some of their attitudes sexist. But now I feel I have reached a level where I don’t care that much. For younger women, it is much harder.’

Rohini Godbole too has mixed feelings about her reputation as a WiS advocate. ‘I’m not sure I like it too much,’ she said. ‘I campaign for WiS but that is secondary to my being a scientist. Somehow, the roles are reversing. I have achieved something in the realm of physics that is not insubstantial. Hence, it hurts when this aspect is downplayed and only the women’s advocacy role gets emphasized.’

It is not an exaggeration to say that being a woman doing science in India can be downright unpleasant. Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan considered herself one of the lucky ones when she was recruited as a PI into a newly formed department at the elite IISc in 2014. In just the next three years, Vaishnavi managed to turn heads with her research and accomplishments. She was selected as an European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Young Investigator and won a Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) Women Excellence Award. She was named a ‘Cell Scientist to Watch’ by the prestigious Journal of Cell Science and was also inducted as a member of its Editorial Advisory Board. It was pretty clear that this young PI was going places.

Yet, within the IISc, all was not well. Her close colleagues were amiable, but Vaishnavi was disconcerted by frequent microaggressions in the male-dominated space. For example, there was the senior male professor who would enthusiastically greet the male colleague she was next to while ignoring her completely. ‘Initially, it hurt quite a bit,’ said Vaishnavi, ‘I wondered what I was doing wrong.’ She tried to tell herself that these were small issues compared to what many other women in science in India faced. ‘I even thought, “oh at least I have not been sexually harassed” . . . that’s a terrible thing to say, isn’t it? But it’s the real situation.’

A position at the IISc is highly coveted and is usually a lifetime gig. Vaishnavi didn’t think she would leave any time soon, but when a better-looking opportunity came up in Australia, she welcomed it. Such a move can never be prompted by a single factor alone but Vaishnavi has been unshy to state that her treatment as a woman in science is one of the reasons for her leaving the country.

‘It was a daily struggle to be taken seriously and to do my science the way I wanted. I moved to do better science, of course, but also because I was in a place where women were not taken seriously.’

‘I don’t think anyone cares, though. It seems to be that the people in power are only interested in staying there by maintaining the status quo.’ The status quo is something Vaishnavi made sure to give a little jolt to shortly before she left the IISc. Along with US-based neuroscientist Shruti Muralidhar, Vaishnavi founded BiasWatchIndia, an initiative that ‘documents gender representation and combats gender-biased panels in Indian conferences, meetings and talks’. BiasWatchIndia was supported by funds from Vaishnavi’s EMBO Young Investigator grant. Their demands for representation and accountability to organizers of male-dominated scientific events were sure-footed and caused some much-needed discomfort in the complacent Indian science community. While the duo expected resistance, Vaishnavi was sometimes caught by surprise when it came from unexpected demographics. She said: ‘We expect the older folks to be resistant to the idea of including a more diverse set of speakers but for us, the surprise comes when students who are part of the institute come to the defence of organizers. Sadly, the younger generation seems to be buying into the meritocracy idea that excludes specific sections of the population.’

The fact that young scientists are often opponents of equity measures is indeed disheartening. However, this makes sense when looked at through a caste lens. Though more and more male and female students are entering STEM fields each year, a vast majority are upper caste and, thereby, under-educated on the existence of historical social inequities. This manifests in the form of extreme defensiveness, stubborn anti-reservation stances and a reluctance to think critically about merit.

Occasionally, the BiasWatchIndia team has been successful in urging organizers to rethink their panel composition. But more frequently, they are met with indifference and weak claims such as ‘there are not enough women in this field’ and ‘we invited someone but she was busy’. The subtext of such lines of defence seems to indicate that our country lacks women with expertise in STEM subjects, with underrepresentation being a natural outcome of this.

In 2017, a group of physicists conducted an experiment to demonstrate that good representation is not as hard to ensure as some make it seem. It started the previous year at a meeting of physicists planned by Prajval Shastri, an astrophysicist who studies giant black holes in distant galaxies, to discuss her proposal for a gender-in-physics working group, which would be under the aegis of the Indian Physics Association. During this meeting, the issue of the lack of women contributors in most scientific journals came up. Unwilling to sit back and let things be, they decided to attempt an all-women’s authorship experiment. Three Indian journals, Resonance, Physics News and Current Science were picked, whose fraction of women authors ranged from a maximum of 15 per cent to 10 per cent and sometimes even lower. Prajval’s proposal to take over the helm as guest editor to produce entirely women- authored issues on the occasion of International Women’s Day the following year was accepted by Resonance and Physics News. With Current Science, the group was forced to compromise when the editorial board declined to have a whole issue authored by women. They did however approve a women-only ‘special section’ within the main issue. Having convinced the respective editorial boards, six of them got cracking on what they anticipated could be a challenging but fruitful mission. Prajval was joined by Sudeshna Mazumdar-Leighton for Resonance; Bindu Bambah and Vandana Nanal came on board for Physics News; and Sulabha Kulkarni and Neelima Gupte guest-edited the special section for Current Science.

For Prajval, the intention was clear. ‘My goal of having an all-women’s authorship was not to ‘showcase’ women’s work. It was to just demonstrate that it is absolutely normal and ordinary for women to write competently about physics for a variety of audiences.’

The production of the issues went fairly smoothly. Prajval, who co-edited two of the three special issues, was pleasantly surprised when nearly all of those who were invited to contribute accepted. However, when we asked Prajval to reflect on the experiment years later, she said, ‘It was silo-ization from the start.’ She explained that Current Science, unlike the other two journals, is a research journal where scientists submit research articles on their own. There was no concept of being ‘invited’ to do so, as there was with Resonance and Physics News, which published content for a more general audience. Nevertheless, there were still ways to make their idea work.

‘The editorial board could have easily decided that for the March issue they would only consider contributed pieces from women. Or, there could have been a special edition of review articles (which are typically submitted on invitation only). The board refused to do either. They finally only permitted this silo-ized ‘special section’.’

As Prajval and Sudeshna wrote in their editorial letter in Resonance, ‘Such a “special” issue should not have been necessary.’ They ended the letter with the ambitious hope that such an initiative would not be necessary again. Indeed, the success of this experiment proved that there was no paucity of competent women authors. With just an unbiased selection of authors, the regular editorial boards could easily enhance the diversity of their content henceforth. So, did that happen?

‘The editorial board clearly did not read our editorial. They seemed to just think of it as a vacation in March, and came back in April to business as usual,’ recalled Prajval. She, however, fondly looks back at the experience she had with the all-women production team at the IASc (which publishes Resonance). ‘They deeply and repeatedly appreciated the effort and the experience of working with me, which was very heartening for me. They wished I were on the editorial board!’

The experiment was met with praise from all corners. Most notably, the President of the UK’s Institute of Physics, Julia Higgins, wrote to her Indian counterpart, Dinakar Kanjilal, congratulating Prajval and the Indian science community who supported her on this mission.

When the president of the academy asked Prajval to repeat the performance for Resonance the next year, she refused. ‘It was not meant to be repeated, it was a demo. I was the one who assembled the authors, and I have shown that it was the most trivial task of all the tasks I had to do for the issue. It was so easy to find a bunch of competent women scientists/writers who said yes.’

So, Prajval informed the president that the onus was now on the editorial board to simply ensure a minimum of 50 per cent women authors in every issue. ‘This was ignored. Clearly, there was no conversation with the editors and the fraction of women authors went back to 15 per cent—business as usual.’ Special issues ‘Celebrating Women in Science’ continued in the following years at Resonance marking Women’s Day.

[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 were sourced from EMBL Australia, NewsClick.]

About the author(s)

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

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