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Can Science Be Women-friendly?

By Kalpana Sharma

14 June, 2004
The Hindu

Many people felt that the "face" of the Congress Party, Mr. Kapil Sibal, who defeated the "bahu" from a popular television serial in the recent general elections, deserved a more important portfolio than the one assigned to him. Mr. Sibal is a distinguished lawyer. He is also a most effective communicator. So what was his party thinking when they gave him the departments of Science and Technology and Ocean Development?

In fact, Mr. Sibal could put this position to good use. Indeed, he could do something different and innovative which would make him shine even in a ministry considered somewhat unimportant. Mr. Sibal should look at the "gender question" in the Science and Technology departments. This does not mean merely counting the number of women scientists employed, although a larger number would do no harm. He should look more closely at the culture within these organisations and whether this is conducive to the advancement of women.

A woman scientist has written urging me to address some of the issues women in science face in India. There are immediate issues of the conditions of work. There are also larger issues of "gendered" science, the need to evolve a system of knowledge that integrates a gender perspective in its approach and direction. The latter is somewhat more difficult to comprehend and to implement. The former, too, is not all that easy. But it can be addressed.

In India, as in many other countries, women have had to fight to be accepted as capable of being equal partners with men in science and technology. Within "science", there were areas that were considered suitable for women and others considered outside their realm of capability. Thus it has taken a struggle, for instance, for women to become engineers. In fact, as recently as five years ago, when a well-known all-women's college in the United States, Smith College, announced that it was offering a degree in engineering, an electronics magazine ran an article with the title, "Is Female Engineer an Oxymoron?" The author claimed that in his 32 years as an engineer in power electronics, he had never worked with a woman engineer. He concluded that women did not have a love or aptitude for "real" technical work.

This response, in many ways, is typical of what you hear when you raise the issue of women in science. Rather than looking at the reason why more women do not pursue careers in a particular branch of science and technology, men conclude that women have no aptitude for that stream. Each time a woman becomes an aeronautical engineer, or a nuclear physicist, or excels in some area previously considered a male preserve, she is applauded and celebrated, but strictly as an exception.

Even before they reach the point of choosing a career in science, women have to make difficult choices. Every year, girls do far better than boys, in science and arts, in the Class X and Class XII examinations. In some institutions, the majority of the toppers are girls. What happens to them after that? Do they drop out? Are they forced by their families to make choices which are not their own? Do they fail to get through the competitive entrance examinations? Are they forced to make pragmatic choices about the future because they are conditioned to believe that marriage and family come first? Is there no way for them to balance their commitments to family with their desire to follow a career?

The declining number of girls who follow through on their apparent aptitude for science at the school level is evident in the few women scientists at the top of the academic pyramid. Those women who do manage to pursue a career in science, often have to strategise how to survive and to get ahead. In one study of women in science in an academic institution in the U.S., the researchers divided the women they interviewed into two categories: the "instrumentals" and the "balancers". The former were described as "women who follow the male model and expect other women to do so, too". The latter were "those who attempt to delineate an alternative model, allowing for a balance between work and private spheres". This probably holds good for women in any profession, including the media, but seems particularly apt for women in science.

In the same study, a single male scientist was quoted as saying: "A lab, in a sense, is a little bit like a country club. You have your friends here ... I don't stay here because it's competitive. I stay here because who wants to go home? It's what I see most of the people here doing, too. They get the newspapers, they talk to their friends, this is the place. It's a club." But the unwritten rule here is that it is a "club" for men.

The reality of the workplace for women is quite different. The woman scientist who approached me describes the situation where she works, a leading government-funded research institute: "This is one Institute where cheap `gendered' jokes are in order at every meeting organised officially. There is the added disadvantage of some male colleagues who openly insult/abuse the women scientists. The few who speak up against them (like me, for instance) have to face difficult work conditions — a work place that is an impending threat all the time, regular (and now quite predictable) disruption at work, and of course direct punishment by manipulating our performance report and granting low grades or denying assessment opportunities."

To many women professionals, this sounds horribly familiar. In some professions, women have a choice. They can leave and find other work. They can work independently, without joining an organisation. In science, this is difficult. And in India, it is even more difficult as most scientific research organisations are government-run. They provide security, but they also leave you with little space to negotiate, to fight for a change of culture, to innovate.

What an irony that in the very profession where people should innovate, should try out new things, should experiment, the work atmosphere is ossified, hierarchical, resistant to any new thinking or to any change in the rules of engagement. Perhaps this is why "government" science is so dead, so devoid of energy.

E-mail the writer: ksharma@thehindu.co.in