Science Be Women-friendly?
By Kalpana Sharma
14 June, 2004
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
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 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"
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
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