The Success of India’s Women in STEM Is Threatened by Many Paradoxes

On the one hand, we congratulate ourselves on the rising numbers of women in science and, on the other, choose to remain neutral in the face of orthodox patriarchy.

A woman scientist on research work at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, NewDelhi, 1951. Caption and credit: publicresourceorg/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A woman scientist on research work at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, NewDelhi, 1951. Caption and credit: publicresourceorg/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Ashwini Vaidya is a post-doctoral fellow in linguistics and cognitive science at IIT Delhi.

Research is usually carried out at academic institutions, which seem so serene, verdant and removed from the hubbub of life. For most laypersons, research work has an esoteric, otherworldly character – but this is very different from reality. The fact is that research has a strong social component: there are conferences, collaborations and job interviews, where people’s group behaviour is strongly influenced by the social context. Yet the myth of the lone scholar/genius working his or her way through the world of ideas persists. The myth is also made more misleading by the knowledge that access to the world of ideas has often been restricted. Throughout history, this lone scholar has most often been male and has worked in traditionally male-dominated institutions.

The 2016 Hollywood film Hidden Figures shows the mathematician Katherine Johnson working in NASA in the early fifties as a ‘coloured computer’, who had to wait several years until she could even be credited as an author of a technical report. Racial segregation was a part of NASA at that time, even though many great minds worked there. Women were not allowed at meetings and she often had to insist that she had a right to be present. What’s more, even though Johnson made enormous contributions to the space program, it was only last year that NASA thought of naming one of their buildings after her. Minimising the contributions of women is a recurring theme in the history of many fields, including science. We also give too little importance to their tenacity and daring in an often unfriendly environment.

General perceptions about women in research or technical fields in particular persist. When I was accepted into a doctoral program in 2009, fellow students came to congratulate me but at least one asked me how this step would affect my marriage plans. Rather than being asked about the excitement of doing research, women are questioned about ‘how they manage their life’. The systems and social pressures that place these expectations on women in the first place are not examined. Instead, the individual woman must answer questions about ‘balance’ and negotiating life and work. Why not examine the role of the larger community and society that has changed at a snail’s pace since women started working outside the home?

In a recent case, a PhD student named Manjula Devak committed suicide in the face of continued dowry demands from her in-laws. Reports suggest that she was successful in her academic life; she had published papers and was about to graduate. If we go by external metrics of progress, then her story is a paradox. A PhD degree and a highly specialised skill set could not guarantee autonomy and independence in her case. It was an orthodox mindset that still had the upper hand. Her death is a vilification of our society where, on the one hand, we congratulate ourselves on the rising numbers of women in science and, on the other, choose to remain neutral in the face of orthodox patriarchy. We need to denounce and shame such a mindset consistently and publicly.

While cases like these are indeed depressing, there are also heartening signs of change: some institutions in India are becoming more proactive about childcare support. Some international conference organisers display anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies on their websites and, in India, there is research funding available for women who have had a break in their career. These are very good signs – but there is a sense that these issues are consistently a low priority for most decision makers. This may have something to do with the fact that very few women have top administrative positions in many science and technology institutions. But it is also related to the fact that certain attitudes about women’s capabilities are so deeply entrenched, that many small changes (including a change in leadership) are needed. Even a simple sharing of stories among colleagues, both male and female, might make more people realise how the science is the same, but the day to day lived experience is sometimes very different.

For example, a woman with a PhD interviews for a research project position and is told that she would not be paid according to her qualification because she has a young child and would anyway not work very hard. It is laughable to think of the same reason being given to a man. Discrimination (based on gender but also on race, caste or sexual orientation) has been known to occur in other (non-academic) workplaces, but it’s not uncommon in academia at all. There’s also an implicit sense that highly-educated people at elite institutions ‘don’t do this’, but as history has shown, nobody is exempt. When discrimination is not physical or violent, it is often not recognised as worthy of complaint. These cases are simply examples of ‘how our society works’, and we’re asked to normalise these experiences or not think too much of them.

Grievance and anti-harassment committees are also sometimes token gestures, especially if a complaint is made by a junior against a senior academician. Academia is hierarchically structured with much value placed on seniority. If these committees are not strictly confidential, nobody would like to approach them. Many stories in the media from across the country suggest that these committees may exist, but don’t always function impartially in our institutions.

The myth of the lone (mostly male) scholar needs to die a slow, but certain, death. There is a need to acknowledge the support systems of a researcher and understand cases where these systems are missing or need to be supplemented. If we turn to the acknowledgements section of any dissertation, it will readily identify a few sources of support: family and friends, a network of peers, advisors at their academic institute, mentors from the field and beyond. Anyone who has typed that page will tell you, when any of these support systems are missing or dysfunctional, there is a price to pay.

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  • ‘A paradox is a statement that, despite apparently sound reasoning from true premises, leads to a self-contradictory or a logically unacceptable conclusion’
    What ‘paradoxes’, according to the author, threaten Indian women in STEM subjects?

    1) ‘The myth of the lone male researcher’. However a myth can’t give rise to a paradox because it is not based on sound reasoning from true premises. Thus, paradoxically, this statement by the author shows that inability to reason properly can be a threat to her own success not just in STEM subjects but any type of logically coherent discourse.

    2) Institutionalised Discrimination & systematically ‘minimising the contributions’ of minority or female scientists. This is not a myth but a statement of fact. It does not give rise to any paradox at all. Indian Research Institutes are notorious for not giving proper credit to young people- more particularly those of weaker social background. Scholars have committed suicide to protest against this. It has caused a big brain drain. However, this problem is not confined to STEM subjects. Professors in some places still treat their PhD students like servants.

    3) A woman married to a jobless alcoholic commits suicide. The author thinks this is a paradox because- ‘If we go by external metrics of progress, then her story is a paradox. A PhD degree and a highly specialised skill set could not guarantee autonomy and independence in her case. It was an orthodox mindset that still had the upper hand.’
    Is the author correct? No. Male scholars also commit suicide when their relationships break down. Scientific training does not automatically create Kantian ‘autonomy’. There is no ‘paradox’ here at all because there is no necessary connection between ‘a PhD degree and a highly specialised skill set’ and emotional maturity.

    The author believes that India is ‘neutral in the face of orthodox patriarchy’. This is not the case. Dowry is a patriarchal institution. It is illegal in India. In no other country would it be possible to arrest and prosecute the husband and family members of a wife who committed suicide on the basis of an unverified complaint relating to Dowry harassment.

    4) Women are under-represented in Indian Research Institutes. Is this a paradox? The author doesn’t say but, clearly, believes that women should be better represented. One way to achieve this is to end funding for unproductive Research Programs, close down Institutes of low calibre and focus on viable proposals from young candidates.
    It is likely that such an approach will get rid of dead wood and discriminatory ‘hysteresis effects’.

    The vast majority of Research papers and dissertations are worthless. This by itself breeds cynicism, careerism, and sociopathic behaviour. In the past, the argument was put forward that Universities and Research Institutes were a good place for Radical thinkers to ensconce themselves so as to subvert the system from within. That strategy failed. Ideology, itself, came to be seen as a stupid careerist swindle. Anyone can tell stupid lies. It is a waste of resources to fund ‘Research’ by people who don’t understand the difference between a paradox and a myth.

  • The author is young. Moreover she is doing research. Criticism is helpful to her because she is aiming at epistemic excellence. The subject of this article is itself concerned with what could be called ‘epistemic ethics’- i.e. the manner in which research of a particular type should inculcate a code of ethics conformable with the methodology current in that particular field. Kantian Paideia- notably the concept of ‘autonomy’- provides a philosophical justification for this notion.

    Thus, we may expect someone doing Scientific research to display a Scientific mentality. Suppose a person producing good Scientific research, nevertheless subscribes to all sorts of irrational prejudices and superstitions in their private life or in their ultracrepidarian public pronouncements. We may say such a person produces good Science but is a bad Scientist.

    Senior Professors can write any nonsense they like. They have already made their mark. A young person, doing post-doctoral work in ‘linguistics and cognitive science’- that to, at IIT Delhi!- should write carefully in articles meant for a general audience. I have not made any personalised attack on the author. I don’t know her. I do think she has been let down by an Education system which is not fit for purpose.

    Why? Well, people in her subject area need to understand that ‘correlation is not causation’. A paradox only arises where there is causation. Now, there are statistical techniques to test for explanatory ‘significance’ with respect to any given statistical correlation. But, the author has presented no such evidence. Anecdotes are fine for senile Professors in their anecdotage. Something better is called for from a researcher in the prime of her youth. In particular, if the author’s claim is that there is a specific culturally ’embedded’ praxis based on ‘the myth of the lone male researcher’ which is at odds with Epistemic ethics in STEM subjects, then she can’t also say that Manjula’s tragic death was a ‘paradox’. Why? Because, in that case, her claim is that ‘external metrics of progress’ (in STEM subjects) correlate or cause suicide in the case of Hindu women being subject to harassment for dowry by the family of an alcoholic, jobless, spouse.

    You may say- ‘this is just semantics. You are attacking the lady because of some personal grudge.’ But the lady is doing research in Linguistics, which includes semantics, and she is doing it at an institution we are all proud off and which we are happy to see supported by Public funds.

    I don’t believe that there is anything in the author’s personality or personal circumstances which prevents her from writing sensibly. If she heeds criticism- even criticism from an old ignoramus like me- not only will she benefit but her colleagues and, later on, her students will also benefit.

  • Why? Because you say so? Are you a fat elderly man with an I.Q asymptotically approaching zero? If not, how can you know what I need?

  • Barkhurdar, a true premise is not a myth. Perhaps you mean ‘in our Society, people believe in male superiority’. You are not a Post Doc in Linguistics writing an article so it is perfectly okay for you to write in an impressionistic, rather than academic manner.

    However, you must be aware, that not only do people in Indian society think males are superior they also think most savants with Doctorates are worthless. If they weren’t, they’d be making a lot of money or would have emigrated.

    Accha, I didn’t know that a woman tortured for dowry is not ‘relationship breakdown’. Silly me. No doubt, you young people have very healthy relationships with each other while simultaneously torturing each other for Dowry or throwing your female in-laws in Jail under Section 498A. In my day, we would just fight about whether Rajesh Khanna was fatter than Rakhi.

    BTW, which ‘system’ sanctions murder of wives? I was under the impression that marriage in India is mainly endogamous. Thus the father of the bride belongs to the same ‘system’ as that of the groom. Are you saying the father of a daughter pays a lot of money to get his daughter married off into a family which is ‘sanctioned’ to kill her? Why? How stupid are Indian fathers? Why don’t they just kill their daughters themselves or give supari to a hired killer to finish her off?

    According to you, my hypocritical society, is taking money from me in taxes and spending it on educating girls whose murder it sanctions. At the very least, this Society should permit me a little ‘whataboutery’. Why are you being so cruel as to deny me this one joy in my life? Oh. I see. You are right. I neglected to kill my daughter in law. That is why you are being so cruel and cutting in your remarks. I have only myself to blame.

  • You are right. I didn’t know that it was pointless to spend tax payers’ money educating girls in STEM subjects because they’d just commit suicide because of the myth of the lone male researcher.

  • Only stupid people who can’t get decent jobs do PhDs in worthless subjects of that sort.
    To be fair, plenty of Maths PhDs end up in the same boat- but, at least, they had a chance.