Women in Science and a Tale of Two Hunters

Even when limited to discrimination, sexism in Indian science causes the loss of half its intellectual capital; in its much more extreme avatar of sexual harassment, it invariably leads to the victim’s career getting compromised

ISRO scientists and other officials celebrate the success of Mars Orbiter Mission at MARS Orbiter Command Network complex in Bengaluru. Credit: PTI Photo by Shailendra

ISRO scientists and other officials celebrate the success of Mars Orbiter Mission at MARS Orbiter Command Network complex in Bengaluru. Credit: PTI Photo by Shailendra

The controversy around what Tim Hunt, a Nobel-prize-winning British biochemist, did or didn’t say about women scientists in his after-dinner speech at a science conference, has important resonances for India today, where RK. Pachauri, another Nobel-related eminence, is facing charges of sexual harassment.

Reportedly, the venerable Dr. Hunt, aged 72, said there were three reasons why he avoided having women scientists in his lab. First, that they fell in love with him: second, that he fell in love with them; third, that when criticised, they began to cry. I found the order in the first and second statements interesting, given his age (and, some would say uncharitably, weather-beaten appearance): first, women fell in love with him, and then, he fell in love with them. That Hunt was able to allow his ego unbridled expression in a way that would be excessive even in a young Adonis, was quite remarkable. As was the breathtaking generality of his third statement, which drew a cascade of witty and mocking responses on social media including a devastating “Dear department: please note I will be unable to chair the 10 am meeting this morning because I am too busy swooning and crying.”

His solution to all of this was simple: since he really liked women, why not have separate labs for men and women? This is a solution worthy of the many regressive socio-religious movements in today’s world showing that many men, be they from East or West, live in neighbouring caves. We may never have benefited from such experiential wisdom had his comments not been tweeted by a shocked British journalist. The collective laughter generated by his speech, especially coming from American and European women scientists, was, at least in my opinion, the perfect response to these senile rantings.

Of course, society today revels in overkill to compensate for earlier inaction: the British press hounded Hunt, and he was sacked from various positions, because of a seemingly viral political correctness. And, as might have been expected, this led to the counter-attack: first by (male and female) colleagues who presumably shared many august club and committee memberships with Hunt, and then by the usual shoot-the-messenger tactics of the tabloid and even the not-so-tabloid press, which cast doubt on the journalist who filed the original report.

The parable of Shikari

And here begins a parable which concerns the parallel and yet different set of experiences that a hypothetical Dr. Shikari, an Indian Hunt(er) of the same gestation and national visibility, might have had as an after-banquet speaker at a science conference in India. He would certainly have been far less restrained, at least while describing his manifold amours, even if he were manifestly less desirable even than Hunt. In this, he would have been supported by guffaws from his male colleagues, and, unfortunately, titters from any women colleagues he had helped, or might in future help, promote. Encouraged by the adulation that he knew was his due, he would become, first, instantly more graphic and then probably, rather hands on.

It is extremely unlikely that such sexist comments would have been deemed worthy of press coverage. But supposing, just for argument’s sake, that an idealist young reporter had filed a story, and an editor had agreed to carry it, Shikari would have felt confident enough to pick up the phone and protest. Shikari’s many cronies within and outside science would, with a wink, tell him that he had gone too far, but that they were all solidly with him, that they would find ways of making sure that many careers took a beating for such an unprecedented crime. Because India is about nothing if it is not about networks: and even seemingly disparate fields like science, journalism, and politics are linked by secret Masonic ties, ties that are as invisible to the outer world as they are strong within.

And what if one of Shikari’s obscure objects of desire had been an Indian scientist who dared to protest? She’d certainly have got short shrift from the science establishment. Had she been more adventurous and engaged those parts of society which had no reason to fear the bogeymen of Indian science – she would have been in for a struggle that would take the best years of her scientific and personal life from her. Had she been foolhardy enough to fight the case in court, the might of the state and the unlimited bounty of its taxpayers would have been used to fight a lone, resourceless and increasingly isolated individual.

Even if, wonder of wonders, she had won her case in or out of court, with her harasser paying a professional price in terms of a temporary banishment from his high status: far from being cowed, he and his cronies would laugh last and loudest. They would know that his banishment would be temporary, while hers would now be complete in a way she could never imagine. In years to come, she would be boycotted by her Indian colleagues, blackballed at her institution, harassed by its clerks and denied due promotions, and become a legend – sometimes a figure of fun, at other times a poisonous femme fatale – to future generations. And since science is now a globalised enterprise, her ostracism in her own country would also spread abroad: first among NRI scientists who would gladly do Shikari the (small) favour of spreading salacious gossip in return for (taxpayer-funded) hospitality on trips home to India, and then, through networks, even to non-Indian scientists. The wreckage of her career would be complete, and her banishment from scientific and other parts of society no less so.

Stranglehold of scientific patronage

If the above parable sounds far-fetched, be aware that it is not. And while all of it may or may not have happened to one person, distinct parts of the parable have happened to women scientists of this and earlier generations. Of course, this parable applies only to Shikaris whose daring (unlike their science) is commensurate with their national standing; it certainly does not apply to male scientists who are too decent and/or scared to live their caveman fantasies. I hope that this parable will sound dated in years to come, not just because we are seeing the last of the repressed old hands and social misfits who have imposed their misogyny and attempted seductions on unwilling women in every profession, but because younger male professionals don’t usually see women as over-the-shoulder carcasses for later consumption.

But meanwhile, one has to ask, why is there such a difference in the fates of the two Hunt(er)s? Misogyny and patriarchy would be easy answers to give in the Indian context. But that doesn’t explain the Indian women who acquiesce in such acts, typically by staying silent, or worse still, by actively conniving with the Shikaris in their midst. The answer has to be in feudalism married to a very venal streak, a love of personal advancement at the cost of all else, something that in a society like our own is the conveyor belt of aspirations, in the form of ever bigger cars and homes and ever-better consorts. Such aspirations are gender-neutral – this is why the antics of a Shikari would never, even if widely known, lead to the barrage on social media to which Hunt was subjected by self-confident, successful women scientists in the west.

And like these aspirations to wealth and power, sexism in Indian science is also gender-neutral, and is absolutely not a battle of the sexes. It is instead a battle between supine spectators to, or active supporters of, sexual harassment by the powerful on the one hand, and a small minority of independent spirits on the other, with consequences that are as severe for our country as they are revealing of its underbelly.

Even when limited to discrimination, sexism in Indian science causes the loss of half its intellectual capital; in its much more extreme avatar of sexual harassment, it leads to unequal wars of attrition between individual women scientists and an environment where ‘..the ceremony of innocence is drowned./The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.’

Shaina Maini is an Indian scientist-turned-science-journalist, currently based in the UK.