Bangalore: For every female first author of a research paper in India, there are almost three male first authors.
A recent study by scholars from India and the UK has found that male researchers dominate academic publishing in India. This is no surprise.
However, gender inequalities within different fields were found to be more uniform than those in the US.
It’s usually important for a researcher to be the first author on a paper – especially for a student. Being so typically indicates that she made the most significant contribution to the paper. But this needn’t always be the case.
For example, PhD students in India are required to be a first author or a co-author of at least one academic paper before receiving the doctorate.
Mike Thelwall, the lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Infometrics, said that he had been wondering “why some fields have different gender balances to others”.
He’s previously studied the US and wanted to study India. “I have met many female Indian scientists in the UK that work in areas that are more traditionally male, like computing. This suggested that there might be a cultural difference in India that would give a contrast with the US,” he told The Wire.
India’s is an unequal society, and its gender inequality is skewed in unique ways as well. Ranked 125th out of 159 countries in the UN Gender Inequality Index in 2015, only 27% of Indian women above 15 are employed, against 79% of men.
While initiatives like ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ have attempted to reduce female infanticide and ensure that girls in India are enrolled in primary schools, employability and participation in labour for women remains very low.
The 2018 UN Human Development Index ranked India 130th of 189 countries. It showed up the country’s still-large inequality in secondary school completion (39% female v. 64% male) and labour force participation (27.2% female v. 78.8% male).
Parliamentary participation of women in India is 11.6%, which was among the lowest in the countries with ‘Medium Human Development’.
But there has been positive news too. A UNESCO study found that women caught up with men in enrolments for college education for the first time in 2016.
Notwithstanding bad scores on gender inequality lists, India was also the fifth-largest producer of research in 2017.
Their study is the first large-scale analysis of male and female authors in Indian research publishing. They set out to answer three questions. In which fields is there a male or female publishing imbalance among authors in India? Which topics and methods are gendered in Indian-authored journal articles? And to what extent do the answers to the last two questions echo the situations in the US?
Using one of the largest online databases of peer-reviewed literature, the researchers looked through 27,710 papers published in 186 fields in 2017 in India, listed the names of all first authors and ascertained their sex with websites listing Indian baby names as reference. In some cases, they also checked the author’s picture on their institutional webpage to confirm. They excluded unisex names.
Then, they analysed 26 broad fields for female-to-male first author ratios. Finally, they compared the data they’d obtained with that gleaned from the US.
The results revealed something unexpected.
“I thought that the gender differences between fields would be larger than for the US, so it was a big surprise that the opposite was true,” Thelwall said. “It is relatively harder for Indian women to become researchers but inside research, there are less differences about the topics that they choose to investigate.”
The comparison with the US was deliberate, Thelwall said, because it’s simply the most studied country in the world for gender differences in academia.
The study found that overall, India has fewer female first authors compared to the US. However, some fields like dentistry, economics and mathematics bucked the American trend, and “were more female” in India than in the US.
The authors also discussed a prevalent observation: that more men preferred “thing-oriented” fields, while women went for “people-based” careers. However, the data both confirmed and defied it.
People- and healthcare-based fields like nursing, psychology and the social sciences had more female first authors than average. But this wasn’t so for other similar fields like medicine, business management and accounting.
Lab-based life science fields like microbiology, biochemistry and genetics also had more female first authors than average.
Exceptions also showed up in the terms used by male and female authors.
“Many of the male-oriented terms are related to things – metalworking, steel, engines – or processes that involve things – heat, fluid, manufacturing processes, algorithms,” the paper notes. “The exception to these patterns is surgery. This is people-oriented but is male-dominated.”
Veterinary science was another – with fewer women in this field in India relative to those in the US.
For social sciences, the most “female-oriented narrow fields of health, education and development had caring and nurturing aspects” while “four fields based on management and control (transportation, geography, planning and development, political science) were more male-dominated.”
An exception here was library and information science, which employed more women in the US but which men dominated in India.
However, some believe these “gendered fields and topics” could be social constructs – much like gender itself is.
“This is due to social beliefs, that women as more suited to particular branches such as biosciences, etc.,” Namrata Gupta, an independent gender studies scholar at the IIT Kanpur campus told The Wire. “Educational decisions are family decisions in India.”
And these family decisions are probably not as gender-blind as they should be. Several academic papers in the past have listed numerous reasons that hold girls in India back from “becoming highly educated”: balance of school and household chores, explicit parental bias towards educating boys, sometimes even a belief that education is not a priority.
Gupta also pointed to questions of safety. For example, lab or office jobs within fields with significant outdoor movement has more women choosing the lab or cubicle.
The glass partition demarcating genders has been showing some cracks in India. In a 2003 study, Gupta and others reported explicit sexism in staff hiring in four IITs. In another study in 2012, she highlighted a growing number of female undergraduates in the “men’s sphere” of engineering.
The Centre’s 2014 gender inequality data across levels of education follows a pyramid structure. There are more women in the lower strata, and narrowing towards the middle (49% undergraduates v. 41% PhDs). The ‘upper’ half of the pyramid – women postdocs, as heads of labs/departments and heads/directors of institutes – is narrower still.
So it’s not enough to ease women’s entry into academia but to also ensure that they remain in academia. For many women in India, the time of their PhDs is often the time to get married, and familial obligations increase as the PhD ends and the postdoctoral phase begins.
With over 40% of American female scientists leaving science after having had their first children, as a recent study found, the figures might just be even higher in India.
Renuka Kulkarni is a science writer at ATREE, Bangalore.