Where are India’s female scientists?

More and more girls are taking up degrees in science, but only a few go on to pursue scientific careers

Isro’s female scientists celebrate after the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission on 24 September 2014. Women account for only 20% of the space agency’s total workforce. Photo: AFP
Isro’s female scientists celebrate after the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission on 24 September 2014. Women account for only 20% of the space agency’s total workforce. Photo: AFP

Buried in the books at the local lending library in Shankar Road, New Delhi, the little girl journeyed to the centre of the earth, sailed to the mysterious island and travelled around the world in 80 days. Mesmerized by the fantasy worlds that Jules Verne opened up in his novels, Aruna Dhathathreyan, born to a government official and a housewife, decided early on in life what she would become: A scientist.

Another daughter born a thousand years ago was Lilavati, whose mathematician father, as the legend goes, taught her science and math through poems. In 2008, Dhathathreyan was among 98 female scientists whose short biographies and autobiographies were featured in Lilavati’s Daughters. She retired last year as chief scientist and head of the biophysics laboratory at the Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai; however, her experience, inspiring no doubt, is no template for the larger experience of women pursuing science in India.

The year was 1974 and Dhathathreyan had just completed her undergraduate programme in physics. In a class of 14 students at a women’s college in Chennai, Dhathathreyan and three others went on to pursue a post-graduate degree. Out of these four, only two enrolled for a PhD. But midway through the programme, one of them dropped out when she got married. That left Dhathathreyan as the only one in her class to complete her doctorate.

When she completed her PhD in 1984, it was still unusual for women in the country to think of a lifelong career then. They would rather choose a career that was, what Dhathathreyan calls, “trouble-free”.

The preference for a “trouble-free” career could be one reason why even now only 14.3% of science researchers in India are women, as mentioned in a recent World Economic Forum report. The proportion is worse than that in several West Asian countries; for e.g., in Bahrain, women account for 41.3% of researchers in science.

But there are other reasons as well.

In the three decades since Dhathathreyan got her PhD, statistics show that much hasn’t changed. What has changed, instead, is that women are no longer a minority within higher education when it comes to STEM—science, technology, engineering and math. Women make up around 40% of undergraduates in science. In fact, there has been a rise in the enrolment of women in graduate programmes in pure sciences, from 7.1 % in 1950-51 to 40% in 2009. Some 25-30% of science PhDs are women, according to a 2015 report by The Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia. But, even now, women in faculty positions only make up around 15% of the total.

Nobel laureate and biochemist Tim Hunt once said three things happen when women are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry. That makes one think of science labs as hubs of misogyny, which they aren’t, but the question remains: How come we have so few female scientists?

While even developed countries have fewer female scientists, the crisis is slightly different in India. In India, women do take up science for degrees, but few of them go on to pursue scientific careers. The reason hasn’t been performance, though.

“The crucial period after your PhD coincides with the period when some women decide to get married or have children. Naturally, you tend to lag. Unfortunately, we can’t give up on that role of motherhood. But if we want to become scientists, we have to work twice as hard as men,” Dhathathreyan says.

Because of the default role of a woman as a homemaker and society’s perception that only women are responsible for rearing a child, marriage and not career is perceived to the primary goal of a woman—no matter which profession she is in.

But “science, and research in science have peculiar issues”, Dhathathreyan says. “If you are away from research in science, particularly experimental work, even for six months, your work gets left behind and you become irrelevant soon. If you choose to have both a career and a family, you do lose out because there is initially an age limit for projects which is 35 years and later, it is 55 years. So, at both ends, you end up losing.”

Dhathathreyan’s story is a mix of family support, work-life balance, dedication and luck. She grew up in a middle-class joint family in a Delhi Development Authority (DDA) housing colony. Her father worked in DDA, and her mother was a housewife. Not exactly a house full of scientists. So, no; the choice of career wasn’t really obvious.

But Dhathathreyan had an uncle, who enrolled her in a local library, where she stumbled upon the books by French author Jules Verne—the pioneer of science fiction. Ambitions soared, and a journey to the centre of the earth and saving mankind from microbial invasion were realizable goals.

Dhathathreyan loved physics and maths and scored the most in these subjects.

When the time came to decide the subject for her bachelor’s, Dhathathreyan chose physics. However, both college options available to her in the city were more than 30km from home. Her parents asked her to pursue a humanities course at a college nearby—obviously an easier and convenient option for a woman. But Dhathathreyan had made up her mind and moved to Chennai instead, where she went on to study physics at Women’s Christian College and did an MSc at Madras Christian College.

Is it that many women choose to stay off science because the society does not want to view them as scientists? Sugra Chunawala, an associate professor at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai, analysed National Council of Educational Research and Training science textbooks, around 2006-07, from Class III to Class X, and found that the majority of representations were of men. Women were also shown, but largely as onlookers or playing a passive role, while the men were invariably shown as the doers. Women were also shown in traditional roles like nursing and mothering, while men were shown as pilots, doctors, etc. Chunawala concluded that the suggestion to girl students was that some professions were not meant for them.

Dhathathreyan did not fall into that trap: After her MSc, she wanted to pursue higher studies in the US. But her father had a different suggestion: He wanted her to get married to someone living in the US and then pursue her studies. She was selected to the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institute of Technology and Institute of Mathematical Sciences, but chose to join the department of crystallography and biophysics at the University of Madras.

There are dropouts, yes. But as Dhathathreyan says, “To be accepted as a scientist who happens to be a woman is still an uphill task in areas considered a man’s world.”

It is hard to establish bias in any field and harder in science, since there are no studies to substantiate it. According to Ram Ramaswamy, professor at the school of physical sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, gender bias in the sciences could be “quite blatant” earlier. “It is still there now, but is more subtle, and therefore more difficult to detect. Or to prove. More often than not, men don’t even realize that something they have said or done was offensive or threatening to women colleagues or students. Academic spaces need to be gender-neutral. And there is an absence of role models. Women in science need mentors that they can identify with, and that too locally,” says Ramaswamy.

On 24 September 2014, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission entered the orbit of the red planet at the successful end of a 300-day space voyage. One photo that stood out that day—apart from the grainy first pictures of Martian surface—was that of jubilant female scientists at Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), hugging and congratulating each other.

Women account for only 20% of Isro’s total workforce of 14,246, according to a report on the website Quartz. Since its founding in 1963, India’s space agency has had nine chairpersons, and none of them was a woman.

The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, India’s premier national science award, has been given to more than 500 scientists since its inception in 1958. Only 15 of them went to women. Why so? “Before asking why so few women get this award, you should look at how many women are nominated in the first place. If there is no water in the well, no water will come in the pail,” says a scientist, requesting anonymity.

The Inter Press Service news agency published a report in 2009 which revealed that female scientists are sidelined by male-centric selection committees for awards and for appointments to research and development positions in government-funded organizations. “Out of 744 Indian National Science Academy Fellowships, only 3.2% went to women. Out of 841 Indian Academy of Sciences Fellowships, only 4.6% went to women. Out of 395 National Academy of Agricultural Sciences Fellowships, only 4% went to women,” the report stated.

After her PhD, Dhathathreyan got married to a chemist, who was in Germany as a Humboldt Fellow. She moved to the Max Planck Institute in Gottingen, Germany for her post-doctoral fellowship, working with the best physical chemist of that institute. The struggle was easier because her husband was a scientist and she was in a different country. “My spouse was very supportive and understood my passion for science. In between, he shifted to Canada for two years and I stayed on in Germany,” she says.

According to a 2010 report by the Indian Academy of Sciences and National Institute of Advanced Studies, 14.1% of women in science research were never married, as against only 2.5% of men. While 46.8% women worked 40-60 hours a week, 66.5% men worked fewer hours. “There is a deep-seated, unspoken bias. I have not faced any bias as such probably because I am a single woman,” says Vineeta Bal, a staff scientist at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi.

Because of the perceived dual burden of home and work, and the lack of out-of-the-lab networking opportunities, female scientists say more men are sought for positions such as memberships of institute committees.

The “entrenched patriarchy in science”, as some female scientists call it, manifests itself in many ways. Hema Ramachandran, a professor at the light and matter physics group, Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru, remembers a male friend’s reaction when she was selected for an MSc at IIT, Bombay: “You have spoiled the career of a man. Why do you girls want to study at IIT, especially when career has no meaning for women?”

Another female scientist, who requested anonymity, said when she was young, her adviser on seeing her work hard, remarked: “I didn’t realize you were so serious about your career.” “I was shocked to hear the underlying bias in his statement. Because I am a woman, I can’t be serious about my career?” she asks.

Dhathathreyan’s experience with bias was not as much in your face, but she remembers the experience of being the only woman in a national committee with 11 male members.

“Professionally, there was no problem when they sought my opinion. Wherever there was a one-on-one, the people inviting us invited other male scientists freely, but when it came to me, they asked me to come with my husband (who is a PhD in chemistry). I knew what that meant. They would rather have a man than me,” she says.

Biases like these are a manifestation of subtler prejudices internalized from societal stereotypes and not necessarily overt. If a female scientist wants both a career and a family, does she always have to choose between the two?

There are several return-to-work programmes for women and some institutes also provide crèches for the children. But, as Rohini Godbole, a professor at the centre for high energy physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, says, “We don’t need just the coming-back programmes. We want ways to negotiate our science careers. It should be made legally necessary to have a crèche for every science institute—not just where women are working. Some say why do we need crèches when we don’t have women workers? Don’t the men scientists have children? The need for a crèche is gender-neutral. Circumstances should be created to make working easier for a woman scientist. After all, science benefits from diversity.”

Recently, human resource development minister Smriti Irani said prejudice against female scientists “dramatically exists” and doing away with it is a fundamental challenge that needs to be addressed. Irani also claimed that no school-going child in the country in this day and age would be able to name an Indian female scientist.

During the interview, Dhathathreyan doesn’t stop mentioning how there was nothing romantic about her wanting to study physics and except for the science that she pursued with great passion and interest, she was never in the limelight. But despite this unspoken bias in the field, she managed to be one of Lilavati’s Daughters, one of the female scientists in the country we can count on our fingertips.

“Our society accepts woman in certain roles readily and in some professions, they are not that easily accepted. Things are changing. But not as fast as we would like them to,” she says.