Science & Technology

Why are there fewer women on India’s science scene? Data needed to answer that, say experts

Social and natural scientists have to come together to work on why women are less represented in Indian science

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Thursday 05 January 2023
More research on gender bias in science needed, say experts at Indian Science Congress
Social and natural science experts at the Indian Science Congress in Nagpur. Photo: Rohini Krishnamurthy / CSE Social and natural science experts at the Indian Science Congress in Nagpur. Photo: Rohini Krishnamurthy / CSE

India needs more social science research on gender bias in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine), Rohini Godbole, Centre for high energy Physics, Indian Institute of Sciences, said.

Godbole was speaking at an event organised at the Indian Science Congress (ISC), being held in Nagpur from January 3-7, 2023.

“We need to have more directed studies on gender issues in science. We don’t have enough data. Social and natural scientists have to come together to work on this,” she told Down To Earth (DTE).

Though social scientists are trained in asking questions on inequality, they are not looking at these research questions, Tannistha Samanta, associate professor, Sociology and assistant dean, Faculty Search and Development at FLAME University, told DTE. She was not a part of ISC.

“Social scientists use their analytical lens to deconstruct gender. If you leave out social scientists, the conversation will be incomplete,” the expert added.

The methodologies of natural science and social science merged together to add value to such studies, Godbole highlighted. The two branches, she added, can address the unconscious bias that plagues research institutions.

The theme of ISC is “Science and Technology for Sustainable Development with Women’s Empowerment”.

Some 28 per cent of people in extramural Research and Development (R&D) projects in 2018-19 were women, an Indian Express report that quoted Department of Science and Technology data, pointed out.

The number of women heading R&D projects had risen more than four times from 232 in 2000-01 to 941 in 2016-17, the report showed.

Another report by BiasWatch found that only 13 per cent of scientists and science faculty in Indian higher education and research institutions are women.

“We need a higher representation of women. We need not wait for someone to empower us,” Dhriti Banerjee, director of the 105-year-old Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), highlighted. She is the first woman to head the Institute.

There are 1,100 vice chancellors heading Indian universities. Of them, only 67 or 6 per cent are women, Pankaj Mittal, secretary general, Association of Indian Universities, said at the ISC event.

The story plays out similarly with the Nobel Prize. Of the 959 winners, only 61 were women, she noted.

Back home, the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Physics Award — one of the highest multidisciplinary science awards in India — was bestowed on a woman scientist only two years ago, Godbole pointed out.

“The government has implemented a slew of measures to encourage women in science. Some include KIRAN, Indo-US fellowship for women in STEMM, SERB-POWER, CURIE, WEQ (Women Entrepreneur’s Quest), WEE (Women’s entrepreneurship and empowerment Foundation,” Neelima Gupta, vice-chancellor from Dr Harsingh Gour Sagar Vishwavidyalaya, said at the event.

Girl students from Navodaya Vidyalaya told DTE that their parents consider a career as a scientist to be unconventional as there are not many women pursuing that route.

But policies alone won’t cut it, the experts said, adding that societal changes are needed. “Societal systems and biological asymmetry, family upbringings have cultivated a mindset in children, especially among girls who feel that they are not up to it,” BJ Rao, vice-chancellor, University of Hyderabad, said.

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