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GENDER: Women in Science Face Discrimination in India – Part 1

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Nov 18 2009 (IPS) - Just 10 of the 443 Indian scientists who received the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) award in the last 50 years were women.

Stumbling Blocks

Experts in gender studies identify eight common hurdles that women scientists confront throughout their scientific careers.

· outsider status; keep women scientists at bay, where females are a minority in an organisation.

· professional networks; when men are powerful in the realm of social and professional net works, then gender affects career advancements of women.

· collaborative research; women’s productivity suffers to the extent that males control access to professional networks.

· measures and productivity; when work evaluations are vague and undefined, then problems arises.

· salary discrimination

· social role; problems arising from marriage, parenting, association with private sphere of life, social unrest and security.

· professional and scientific style; differences in socialisation leads to gender difference in professional styles.

· gendered nature of science, which is born out of the male dominated culture of science.

A published work, titled 'Strangers in Strange Land: A Literature Review of Woman in Science', from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) secretariat of the World Bank in association with the Massachusetts-based Simmons Institute for Leadership and Change, acknowledges the views of gender experts on the eight obstacles in science research.

After carefully examining the problems of women scientists around the world, CGIAR said, "Understanding the informal obstacles women face in scientific endeavors can help us to create an environment, which in turn, will allow all scientists to produce the best possible scientific innovations."

Dr. G.S. Jayasree, director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Women’s Study Centre, University of Kerala, told IPS that more gender sensitivity from males would go a long way in removing these hurdles in the progress of women in science and technology.

An IPS investigation reveals that women scientists are sidelined by male-centric selection committees for awards and for appointments to research and development (R&D) positions in government funded organisations.

A gender-wise breakup of data related to three important national awards – SSB, Young Scientist and National Bio Science award – shows a consistent marginalisation of female scientists and technologists.

There were very few females among the recipients of the Young Scientist awards since it was instituted in 1987. Of the total 133 people who won the award up to 2009, only 17 were females.

Equally the National Bio Science awards have been prejudicial to women. Between 1999-2008, 70 scientists received the award which carries a cash prize of 100,000 rupees (2,200 dollars) and a research grant of 300,000 rupees (6,400 dollars) per year for a maximum of three years. Only 10 women scientists were chosen.

The Indian National Science Academy report on ‘Science Career for Indian Women’ substantiates the IPS investigation, and says that “male-centric decision making bodies in S&T (science and technology) have often worked against women and S&T has hurt rather than helped women (advance).”

“A few women receive recognition through awards and academy fellowships. Bias against women leading to the much talked about ‘glass ceiling’ does operate and needs to be addressed,” the report said.

Commenting on gender discrimination in Indian science and technology, Dr. Vineeta Bal, a senior scientist at the New Delhi-based National Institute of Immunology and a member of the government’s task force for women in science, told IPS that a male-centered line of thinking has been dominant in S&T award selections for several years.

“In the history of SSB awards, very few women have been considered worthy of the prize award in any field of science. There is only one women recipient of the SSB award in medicine in the past 15 years and none in biology,” she added.

Statistics/data availed from major R&D institutions showed that gender disparity in male-female staff selection process was continuing, and females were marginalised in recruitments.

The government’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has 950 women among its scientific work force of 7,000. The organisation had suffered a major set back in 2003-07 due to an exodus of young scientists/technologists; as many as 1,007 people left DRDO for better scientific jobs.

The percentage of women scientists at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – which awards the SSB and Young Scientist prize every year – is considerably fewer than male scientists. Of the total 4,297 scientists, the number of women is 703.

Though many women have reached top positions in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), under the Department of Space, the percentage of women scientists is very low; the percentage of women employees in the administration is 17.6 percent, while strength of women in scientific/technical positions is 7.18 percent only.

The percentage of women scientists employed at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore is also less than 20. According to data, 15,338 people are working at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, where the percentage of women scientists/engineers is less than five.

“Female representation in science faculty in major national institutes/ some central universities showed a disproportion in the selection of women teachers/scientists with respect to the higher numbers of males”, said Gopika Chandran, who teaches science in a university in Chennai (previously Madras).

In July 2009, S&T minister Prithviraj Chauhan told a meeting of 27 senior women scientists in New Delhi that he was “not happy about the number of women scientists in the country. There are many problems.”

“Attempt will be made to make gender audit in scientific establishment obligatory. Out of 37 institutes of CSIR, not a single lab is headed by a woman,” he added.

There are few female fellows in national science academies like the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bangalore. “Becoming a fellow in an academy is considered as a stepping stone to higher positions. Therefore, every scientist aspires to become a fellow,” admitted Rajan Mathur, a scientist in a government research institute in Mumbai.

IPS’s investigation also found out that a few academies have nominated more women scientists to its list of fellows due to growing dissatisfaction among women scientists.

The prominent Indian Academy of Sciences, which was founded in 1934 by Nobel Laureate Prof. C.V. Raman, presently has over 800 fellows. Between 1994-2004, the number of males selected as fellows in all disciplines was 236 while the number of females was 17. The academy enlisted more women fellows, and their numbers increased to 51 in 2007.

Women’s representation in government constituted research advisory bodies also worries women scientists; data shows a range between 0-21 percent.

According to Dr. Bal, many unstated considerations were factors in the selection/nomination of fellows/members in research institutions/committees. “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 standard patriarchal cultural barriers of so-called morality.”

*This is the first of a two-part series that looks at discrimination against women scientists.

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