Millennium Post

Women in science

Participation of women in professional science continues to be limited for a variety of reasons ranging from mindset to skewed infrastructural availability

Only 15 per cent of the Indian research and development workforce comprises women, while the global average is 30 per cent, which is also skewed. But, the magnitude of gender difference in science is quite significant in India. The story is no different in science and technology teaching institutions.

While the reasons are multiple, the most important one is mindset, which has been targeting women right from their cradles. We never see a year-old baby as a baby, but a girl or a boy. This gets a push from our academic books that breed this discrimination. I remember reading a book meant for toddlers published in the USA that said, "Seven piglets were adventurous and went out, while three remained at home as they were girls." Barring a small section of society, everyone, including parents, teachers and educational institutions not only take no steps to encourage girls to pursue science but contribute to the contrary directly or indirectly. A very small percentage of girls are able to overcome this deterring environment to develop an interest in science and pursue it.

The number of institutions offering arts and commerce outnumbers those offering science. This proffers a need for greater investment. Further, a majority of women's colleges offer arts and commerce rather than science. I was told that a university declined women's colleges' permission to offer science saying they are poorly equipped while permitting coeducational institutions with similar shortcomings to teach science. "Women don't need science," is at the back of many minds.

It is certainly more challenging for women pursuing science to excel due to the various hurdles they face and the bias that operates against them in almost all institutions. When it comes to peer recognition, women are at a loss as they muster far less support.

At Indian Science Congress, the 106th edition of which ended on January 7, 2019, women almost never deliver public lectures, seldom give plenary or invited lectures and are rarely involved in panel discussions. A majority of women participants in the Congress are young researchers submitting posters and a few giving lectures in sectional meetings.

This made me start the Women Science Congress programme hoping to encourage more accomplished women scientists to participate, act as role models for budding women scientists and create a platform for networking and mentoring. The other objective was to showcase the contributions of women scientists in the country and change people's mindset that women are less suited for science. One more objective was to deliberate on how science and technology can empower women.

Women also contribute to the current situation. Only a small percentage of women who do pursue science convert it into a career. There are many women engineers, PhD degree holders and master's degree holders in science who haven't pursued their subject any further. While the circumstances they face may be largely responsible, many also give up easily. A majority of those who seek early retirement are women. Information technology is one sector that is utilising women's power more effectively. The teaching profession comes next, especially when it comes to biology.

While men network and welcome other men quite easily, women do not. Women in high positions rarely groom other women. When I was the 99th president of the Indian Science Congress Association, I received several letters from men in India and abroad seeking an invitation to attend the science congress. Not a single such request came from any woman scientist, I had to coax some of them to participate. This skewed thinking that women are less suited for science and the damage it is causing needs to be taken more seriously.

First and foremost, the books, the stories taught, the lessons written should be made gender neutral. Steps can be taken to strengthen science education in women's institutions. Though I was sceptic about the relevance or need for women-only institutions in the beginning, I realised, as the vice-chancellor of a women's university, that these institutions provide the best platform to address many issues that concern women. The Women's Technology Park I started at our university soon attracted rural women. The importance and benefits of teamwork, networking and being proactive should form an important part of soft skill training offered to women.

In our educational system, there is too much categorisation that also starts too early. Science, including physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology should be taught for all up to the 12th grade and beyond too, if possible. This is to ensure that everyone keeps abreast with the developments in science and reaps its benefits for a better living. Many students, including girls, may develop an interest in science if they have a good foundation in the subject. Teaching science needs laboratory infrastructure and many schools lack such facilities, resulting in poor education in high schools which makes students, more so women, diffident of pursuing science at the college level. Special attention should also be paid to better infrastructure and teaching methods for science in high schools.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

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