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'I Was the Only Woman in the Room': The Difficulty in Being a Female Scientist in India

By: Raka Mukherjee


Last Updated: March 08, 2019, 12:36 IST

 (photo for representation, Reuters Pictures)

(photo for representation, Reuters Pictures)

"The lack of women in science isn't a problem of women. It's a systematic problem. It's a system of patriarchal culture, which doesn't understand the perils of women, as a result of which, the science suffers," says Vaidya.

In May 2019, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology was awarded to 33 winners of past three years on the occasion of National Science Day in Delhi. This is one of India's most coveted prizes in science. Out of the 33 winners, one thing stood out - there was just one woman.

Dr Aditi Sen De of Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad, is the only woman among the 33 scientists who was awarded for the year 2016, 2017 and 2018. In the history of this prestigious prize, 519 men were awarded and well, just 16 women.

The first question that strikes you: Are there not enough women in science who deserve such awards?

Speaking to News18, Aditi Sen De, who won the prize for her work in 'quantum communication', explains that the period where a female scientist has to choose between her career or her family is what makes or breaks whether the woman stays in scientific research.

"If women getting married, or having a child, there are these grants you can apply for, and take leaves for those designated periods. But the difficult part is not getting the grant, but coming back," she explains.

After a female scientist comes back to work, she essentially has to compete with a male counterpart, who has the same qualifications, the same publications,  and also has the added advantage of not taking that break.

A NITI Ayog report 'Status of Women in Science among Select Institutions in India' finds that there are more women than ever are enrolling in the field of science. However, women do not continue in the field of science for very long.

"That break matters a lot, in a case of researches, because it is not easy to catch up after it. Often, people do not come back," Aditi says, adding that the women she studied with in college, have also dropped out along the way.

The reason for this can be traced to something called, 'The leaky pipeline' is a phenomenon in academia, which stands true for science, where funds die out at post-graduate level, and keep decreasing for the ones who do make it past the initial financial barriers – because women keep dropping out of science, for one reason or another, mostly either due to family or financial constraints.

The underlying message is clear – there is not enough to retain women in science after they have already started.

"The system is set up for men who have support, not for women," says Vidita Vaidya, a Professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Vaidya has  won the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in 2015 in Medical sciences. "When you hit your prime year, or motherhood, that and your career taking off is really at conflict with each other," she adds.

A House of Commons science and technology committee report delved into this in detail, saying that scientific research careers are dominated by short-term contracts with poor job security, that coincide at the same point of life where women may want to conceive children. A female post-doctoral scientist would face difficult decisions while stuck on fixed-term contracts before tenure, with very little in the way of institutional support. Women should not have to choose between career and family, which raises the question – why do we not ask the same of men?

"I was the only woman in the room when the prize was awarded to me," Vaidya adds.

Vaidya also says that she has been seeing her own colleagues drop out at every step of the way, and explains how the timelines of motherhood and maximum productivity as a scientist are not oriented towards women. "The system has to flex and handle that. If you lose women, you lose a lot of creative minds. It's not an inclusive system."

The problem, then essentially isn't one of a lack of women enrolling in the field of STEM but how the system is designed for them to fail.

The ratio is disproportionate for a reason: the system doesn't allow for there to be enough women to balance the scale. And unless the fundamentally flawed system designed to filter more and more women out at every step is changed, the vast difference in the ratio won't be decreasing anytime soon.