The gender gap is very much distinct in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers.Among female students opting for science in high school only a fraction of them able to finish post-graduation.

Centuries have passed, but women in science are still struggling to create a niche for themselves in this male dominated field. The gender gap is very much distinct in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers. Among female students opting for science in high school only a fraction of them able to finish post-graduation. Even in this fraction of highly educated females, majority of them opt for full time teaching. It is not surprising that females represent only 13.7% of management position and meagre 7% at senior management level, which is much below global average. Although the enrolment percentage in higher education increased from 17.9% in the year 2010-2011 to 26.4% in the year 2018-2019, the actual number of females in professional work field has declined. Education plays important role in women empowerment. One may wonder in spite of seeing growth in female education level, why there is decline in their representation in professional work front area.  Answer to this question lies within our families. It is a generally accepted norm that a woman should prioritize housework rather than professional work. It is no wonder female professionals struggle more to create work-home balance than males. The pressure of negotiating gender and professional role get more intense for females in their late twenties and thirties. Marriage, family responsibility, child bearing and caring for elderly are common reasons for female’s career break or dropping out from work place. Many of them do not focus on skill development, which makes the re-entry more difficult. 

Scientific community needs to discourage gender bias. There are many female Indian scientists, who achieved great success in conjunction with their family responsibilities and support.

It is no surprise that females in their professional space confront more work life balance questions than males and are considered not competitive enough to manage intensive competitive positions at management level. There is no denial to this truth that even in this century; women remain underrepresented in engineering, computer science and physical science. Dr. Bimla Buti, who specializes in Plasma Physics and honored with many awards (Vikram Sarabhai Award for Planetary Sciences, 1977, the Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Lectureship award, 1993, the Vainu Bappu International Award in Astrophysics, 1994, and the Lifetime Achievement award of the University of Chicago in 1996) opted for remaining single to give full justice to professional commitment. Still she faced gender differential treatment from the scientific community in India. By giving this example, I am not implying that marriage is a hurdle for female scientists. Support of family is definitely essential to sustain the motivation, curiosity, imagination and scientific desire in women. Scientific community needs to discourage gender bias. There are many female Indian scientists, who achieved great success in conjunction with their family responsibilities and support.

we women do not require special provisions to achieve our worth but this does not justify the unnecessary gender bias and unrealistic expectation to achieve work-family balance. It will truly help if capability rather than age, knowledge rather connections become the criterion of selection for research positions and titles.

Becoming a fellow of national science academies is considered a stepping stone for establishing one’s scientific achievements in India. To become the fellow first one needs to be nominated and then elected. Academic merit definitely plays an important role but there are several unwritten rules including knowing people in decision-making bodies apply in the process. In this area women scientists easily lose out. Personal interactions with male colleagues are deeply constrained by the patriarchal cultural barriers. Dr. Kamala Sohonie who discovered enzyme ‘cytochrome C’ in plant cells and was the first female student of Professor C. V. Raman was denied IISC fellowship just because of being female.

When personal connections matter in achieving targets, women scientists can easily lose out, since personal interactions of women scientists with male colleagues would be deeply constrained by the standard patriarchal cultural barriers of so-called morality. No wonder very few female scientists achieve academy memberships. Another indicator of status of female scientists in the country is getting nominated on government-constituted advisory bodies. This includes being a member of the research advisory board, scientific advisory committee or research council for various national institutions, being a part of the committees that make decisions about accepting or rejecting projects for extramural funding from CSIR, DAE, DBT, DST, ICMR etc. There is no specified criterion for selection of these positions but one definitely needs to be considered “good enough,” by influential peers. Another major hurdle in women scientist careers is age limit. In India every academic/research position is categorized under age brackets. Female scientists often face interruption in their career history. These specifications make their comeback more difficult.

However, despite these challenges and lack of enough recognition in the scientific community, there are many inspiring Indian women scientists who made heroic contributions to science and society. Some of them may not achieve recognition in their own lifetimes, but their achievements will remain inspiring for generations of female scientists in our country and worldwide. Last year Indian government established 11 research chairs honoring Indian female scientists Archana Sharma (Cytogenetist), Janaki Ammal (botany), Darshan Ranganatham (biochemistry), Asima Chatterjee (Chemistry), Kadambini Ganguly (medicine), Iravati Karve (anthropology), Anna Mani (meteorology), Rajeshwari Chatterjee (engineering), Raman Parimala (mathematics), Bibha Chowdhuri (physics) and Kamal Ranadive (biomedical science). Increase of recognition for women in science encourages young female researchers to follow their passion and cultivates a sense of belonging.

In my own experience as a female biologist, we women do not require special provisions to achieve our worth but this does not justify the unnecessary gender bias and unrealistic expectation to achieve work-family balance. It will truly help if capability rather than age, knowledge rather connections become the criterion of selection for research positions and titles. Senior women scientists should be involved in taking policy decisions relating to hiring norms and encourage young women in their scientific career prospects. The gender pay gap exists even in the scientific field and is more evident in the private sector. A female researcher often paid less than male in the industrial sector. Not just this they also face other forms of harassment and incivility that could be humiliating or threatening.

Last, but not least there is unwritten rule in many scientific institutes of not hiring husband and wife together, even when both are suitably qualified. In my opinion if a scientist couple work at the same place they achieve more success and beneficial for the organization. There is no written rule for this prohibition but these stated rules are often guided by instincts and misconception of authorities or colleagues.

Dr. Sarita Jaiswal is an experienced plant biochemist working at the University of Saskatchewan and Ex Chief Scientific Officer Carpere, Canada. Her area of specialization is carbohydrate structural chemistry, metabolism and nutrition. She has sixty research publications inclusive of R&D articles, books, manuals/ modules, and book chapters. She has worked in many academic and industrial research projects. She also has keen interest in cosmetic formulation development and working on her own brand development.

InnoHEALTH magazine digital team

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