India has begun one more programme in earnest to attract girls to and retain women in science, amid a countrywide challenge to reduce a worrisome gender disparity in this area of human endeavour.
The Vigyan Jyoti scheme, advanced by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), was announced in the 2017 budget allocation for the Ministry of Science and Technology together with a 2,000-crore-rupee purse. The scheme’s aim: to arrange for girl students of classes 9, 10 and 11 meet women scientists, with the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research serving as the nodal centres, at least at first.
The announcement was accompanied by a redesigning and renaming of a national programme called Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE), changed to Inspire-MANAK (Million Minds Augmenting National Aspiration and Knowledge), to attract talented young boys and girls to study science and pursue research as a career.
A year later, and with some funds trickling in, some of India’s premier institutes, including the IITs in Indore and Bhubaneswar and the IISER in Pune organised on-campus camps for 30 girl students over two weeks, as required by the government, as pilots. Senior women scientists attended the camps as role models to encourage the students to pursue careers in science.
R.V. Raja Kumar, director of IIT Bhubaneswar, which had organised one such camp in June, told The Wire felt that it was a good mechanism to guide students towards science and hoped that the effort could have a lifelong impact.
In fact, Kumar went a step further and included five girl students from six villages adopted by the institute under the Unnat Bharat Abhiyan programme, launched by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2014 to connect India’s elite institutes with local communities and address their developmental challenges with appropriate technological interventions.
“The students are very motivated and took part very spiritedly. Many said in their feedback that they were now determined to emulate the women scientists who attended as role models and interacted with the girls. The girls want to develop big goals in scientific careers,” Kumar said.
Those students who spoke to The Wire also seemed enthusiastic. “We did not know much about topics such as climate sciences, weather prediction or oceanography earlier,” Maya Yadav, a student from Keonjhar, Odisha, said. Or that engineering or medicine are not the only two options available for careers to science students. “I love physics and computer sciences. I am interested in artificial intelligence. There is a lot to explore in science and enjoy,” Yadav added.
So far so good. Nonetheless, notwithstanding several initiatives, the gender disparity in science in India remains worrisome – as it is worldwide. India’s 2008 National Task Force on Women in Science report (ed. Mahtab Bamji, 2009-2010) says that women scientists constitute “a distinct minority” and that many highly qualified women, such as those with doctorates, “drop out of the workforce, resulting in considerable depletion of national resources in science and technology.”
The report noted that the percentage of girls studying science in Indian universities has increased since Independence. However, “the ideal fraction of 50% of female students has not been achieved and has, in fact, plateaued off at a lower level”. It also observed that the number of girls studying engineering is lower than those studying basic sciences, with the situation in the IITs “particularly dismal”.
Finally, the report said, “There is a drastic drop in the percentage of women from the doctoral level to the scientist/faculty position, suggesting a bottleneck at the employment stage due to recruitment procedures and family responsibilities.” As a result, there was a “major paucity” of women at the senior-most administrative and policy making positions in scientific institutions.
Among others, its recommendations addressed measures to attract women to science. These included summer and winter camps for those who opted for science; initiating a well-planned role model programme with successful women scientists, both through visual media and personal interactions; special fellowships for girl students securing top positions in university exams; and outreach programmes for girl students during conferences.
According to the 2018 UNESCO Institute for Statistics’ report on women in science, 44% of bachelor students and 41% of doctoral students in India are female. “What happens beyond that has not been chronicled for India, though there are figures from many other countries in the dataset,” the report remarks.
“While more women are enrolling in university, relatively few pursue careers in research. There are many leaks in the pipeline – from stereotypes encountered by girls to the family-caring responsibilities and bias women may face when choosing a career.”
It does not help that some senior ministers downplay or bury their heads in the sand instead of addressing the problem head-on. In July this year, Harsh Vardhan, India’s science and technology minister, said in a written reply to the Lok Sabha, “There is neither a shortage of women scientists in the country nor [are] they are lagging behind in the S&T field. However, their number is less as compared to male counterparts in this field.”
Per the latest data, he noted that 39,389 women scientists are working in various research institutions across the country.
Vardhan also cited several programmes launched by the government to encourage women to pursue scientific careers. These include a Indo-US fellowship for women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine to participate in international collaborative research in premier institutions in America; women-centric programmes under the Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing (KIRAN) initiative; a Bio-technology Career Advancement and Reorientation (Bio-Care) scheme; and relaxing the upper age limit by five years for women candidates for junior and senior research fellowships awarded by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. The last is to help those who may need assistance with motherhood or relocation due to husband’s transfer.
Are such programmes useful? “In principle, every effort of this kind (such as Vigyan Jyoti), if implemented in sincerity, can be of some help,” Vineeta Bal, a visiting faculty member at IISER, Pune, and a member of the task force on women, told The Wire. “There are likely to be some gains such as at least marginal increase in the interest of those girls who attend such camps.”
She expects that “only a minority among those who attend the camps will have at least some long-lasting impact, which may bring about change in their career plan. This will be the case if the camps are organised with enthusiasm and insight.”
For properly evaluating the outcomes, administrators will have to follow-up and collect more data. “I am not sure whether such provisions are made in the scheme itself,” Bal said. “Besides, the outcome of these camps can only be measured at the entry point of the career for women, even on the semi-long-term basis, not based on the attendance in the camp.”
“These school going girls will be ready to tackle career opportunities such as faculty jobs in another 15 years. This is a very long-term goal and, hence, predicting gains will be hard at this juncture beyond saying that if this scheme has an impact, it is likely to be a positive one,” she added.
In some STEM fields, such as the biological sciences, medicine and some specific areas of engineering, the fraction of women has steadily increased over the last few decades. “Apart from some active efforts from the government of India, it has mostly happened because of more literacy among women, more opportunities for employment, partly due to the liberalisation of the economy, increased urbanisation and impact of women’s movements in India,” Bal said, adding that Vigyan Jyoti could contribute to this push.
“However, we also do need to focus on the status of these women once they get the jobs. While the percentage is still low based on some surveys – 10-15% according to some estimates – they continue to face the same kind of discrimination at work as they face in society.”
Such discrimination usually takes the form of a hostile and unpleasant atmosphere at the workplace, although it does also manifest as active harassment based on their gender. The men who are responsible for such conditions tend to be insensitive, reluctant to concede that there is a problem and that the women they work with actually suffer as a result. The implication for Vigyan Jyoti is that if the framework in which it operates does not have “Indian science leaders” – in Bal’s wording – and politicians working towards improving the “at times hostile” working conditions of women in science in the longer term, the scheme risks becoming “superficial”.
Then there is the question of funds. According to Bal, “covering 100,000 girls in the camps was supposed to be a pilot programme. But what are the other components in the Rs 2,000 crore package announced? Is it going to be restricted to girls and not helping women in science careers?”
It is also useful to ask whether the entire allocation will be made available at once given that the DST’s overall budget increased only by Rs 343 crore in 2017-2018. Even if Vigyan Jyoti’s operating period of five years is factored in, the requirement comes to Rs 400 crore a year – a difference of Rs 57 crore this year.
“As a result,” Bal said, “money will either have to be taken out of some other schemes or this scheme will not achieve its targets during the first year [itself] – before the 2019 elections!”
T.V. Padma is a freelance science journalist.