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Why women continue to be under-represented in academic careers?

  • Prof. Rohini Godbole, CHEP, IISc

Photo: Siddharth Kankaria

1931 - A time when most women were aspiring to become a successful wife, mother or daughter, Dr. E.K. Janaki Ammal was already setting an example by being an early Indian woman doctorate in basic sciences from the University of Michigan. A competent botanist and geneticist, her seminal work on sugarcane varieties and genetics of flowering plants are recognised to this day. She was a fierce environmental activist and taught Botany at the Women’s Christian College, Chennai. In recognition of her contributions to the field of botany, she was elected as a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy in 1957, was awarded the Padmashri in 1977, and was herself a founding Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1935.She also served as the Director General of the Botanical Survey of India, and even has a flower named after her -- Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal! She was indeed a symbol of inspiration to many girls and women of her age.

Fast forward to 2017, there are many ‘Janaki Ammal’s around us – women who have a thriving career in science. An ever-increasing number of girls are taking up higher education in the fields of STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine), a domain that was previously male-dominated.

But, has the society really grown beyond gender stereotypes? Are there enough women engaged in scientific careers? Do they really reach the same heights of success in academia as men do? A report on “Women Scientists in India” in 'Women in Science and Technology in Asia' published by the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) clearly says it is a ‘No’. Why not? Why have women in science always been under-represented?

“Under-representation of women in science is not a women’s problem anymore, it is a problem of science and of all humanity. It is for the benefit of science that there must be more women in science – it’s a simple matter of capitalising on an untapped pool of intellect and knowledge”, says Prof. Rohini Godbole, a Professor at the Centre of High Energy Physics, Indian Institute of Science and the co-author of the above article. Prof. Godbole has long stood up for the cause of gender equity in scientific careers; she is the current Chairperson for the ‘Panel for Women in Science’ of the Indian National Science Academy, the current vice president of the National Academy of Sciences, India and an eminent member of various committees and panels that encourage women in science.

The AASSA article suggests that the proportion of women engaged in science remains roughly consistent from the Undergraduate (~40%) to the Ph.D. level (~30%). However, it drops significantly post this with only about 10% - 15% women holding faculty positions in academic institutes. The numbers continue to be abysmal if we consider women who head research labs, universities, scientific advisory bodies, or science departments in the governments. And only a few make it to the list of national awards and fellowship winners of national science academies.

“It is primarily the mindset of men and women, and the lack of opportunities and facilities for combining family and work commitments, which is to blame for under-representation of women”, adds Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar, of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at IISc, and Chairman, Centre for Contemporary Studies.

“One of the major issues for women in science is the very nature of a scientific career,” opines Prof. Godbole, in a detailed interview with Research Matters. She points out that gender differences, which do not play an overtly influential role until the Ph.D. levels, start cropping up later as one starts transitioning from being a student in science into pursuing a full-fledged scientific career. “During this transition, one begins to think of expanding her horizons as an individual and making a niche for oneself in science. Unfortunately, this period in one’s life is also the time the body clock is ticking, and one starts worrying about settling down, marrying someone and having children”, she explains.

Most working women, at some stage, will have to precariously balance a competitive and demanding career with other priorities like marriage, children and family responsibilities. But, what makes it all the more difficult for women in scientific careers? “It is this overlap of time periods which are critical from both professional and personal point of view, which turns out to be a real speed breaker in case of scientists compared to other professions”, points out Prof. Godbole.  This rigid overlap is what might dissuade and discourage many women from continuing in science.

A joint study conducted by the National Institute of Advanced Studies and the Indian Academy of Science uncovers other factors that may contribute to under-representation of women in science. Titled ‘Trained Scientific Woman Power: what fraction are we losing and why?’, this unique study was conducted on the behest of Prof. Godbole herself. “It was unique in two ways - firstly, it was the first such study which not only interviewed currently active women scientists, but also women scientists who had given up their careers in science, and secondly, the study was done as a collaboration between scientists and social scientists”, says Prof. Godbole.

The study alarmingly points out that maintaining a work-life balance may not be the only factor hindering the growth of women scientists. According to it, most women who left their scientific careers did so primarily because they could not find an appropriate job or career support. Marriage or family reasons were not the only contributing factors to this, as one would have expected naively.  This observation highlights something that is amiss in the current understanding of gender discrimination and societal attitudes towards women.

A lot of the issues faced by women in their careers are not actually recognised forms of discrimination. “These differences in attitudes and perception towards women scientists are mostly unintended, and are a result of ingrained collective psyche as a society which ascribes to set notions of gender roles”, explains Prof. Godbole, citing examples where a mentor may not consider a scientific career as a viable option for women or a university that assumes a woman scientist will be willing to relocate to another place if the career of her husband demands so.

“We still fail to do simple things like relaxing age limits for women who take time off for child rearing, or allow the hiring of couples together”, adds Prof. Gadagkar, on reasons that affect women in scientific careers.

Prof. Godbole also touches upon the reasons for the modest number of women who have won top science awards or hold top positions in academia or the government. “Awards and recognition are decided not just by your academic credentials, but also by a complex set of other factors. When nominating someone for a senior scientific position, a prospective director or a head of an institution, if people don’t even consider any woman as a prospective candidate, then there is something inherently wrong. Although I wouldn’t put the entire blame at the door of gender bias, but at the same time I cannot rule out that gender bias does contribute to such a scenario,” she says.

So how does one go about rectifying such inherent biases against women? Prof. Godbole feels that the first step of encouraging women to take up science has been achieved and for the last few years, there has been a good representation of women in the undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. levels. “Given this pool of scientifically competent women, the next step has to be to increase women representation in scientific careers, government positions, advisory committees and other positions of power,” she recommends.

Thankfully, many research institutes and governmental departments have realized the need for measures to retain women. Facilities like day-care crèches, flexible child-care breaks, schemes like DISHA (Empowering Women through Digital Literacy, KIRAN (Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing) and BiO-CARe (Biotechnology Career Advancement and Re-orientation Programme) have been implemented to encourage women to re-enter academia or improve their mobility. Many panels and committees have been set up to discuss these pertinent issues. “We have schemes to ease women's coming back to a career after a break, but perhaps  now what is more important is to think of ways in which the critical early period can be dealt with, without  such a break. After all science does not stop during the period, during which one takes a break,” she said.

Prof. Godbole brings up an interesting point about making such schemes gender neutral instead of women-centric. “Existing policies and schemes started by various institutes and governments could go a long way if they are made gender neutral”, she says. “Either spouse should be given an option to relocate to the other’s location of work, and deciding who follows whom should be based on the relative career progressions of each spouse,” she points out.

But perhaps the most important intervention required today is to sensitise both men and women about the challenges faced by women scientists. “Gender sensitisation must be mandatorily taken up at many levels:  institutes, workplaces, the government and even the media, not just at the level of family and society”, says Prof. Godbole. “The most important step in countering this issue will be achieved by a change the mindset of people, especially of men, and specifically men in the position of power, where they can make a difference”, she adds.

“Most of these inherent biases against women are almost never purposeful or intended, but just seem to happen. And it is precisely this happening that one has to work against, by being aware of such biases creeping in at every stage, and actively fighting against them,” she says.

In this journey of refining our focus from simply educating girls towards educating families, empowering women and understanding their actual struggles and facilitating solutions, what is an ideal goal? “In the end, I look forward to the day when people don’t talk about us as women scientists, but as just scientists. I just want to be known as a scientist who happens to be a woman”, signs off Prof. Godbole.