A Step Forward to Address the Gender Gap in Indian Science

Taking inspiration from international groups, female physicists in India have set up a working group to address issues plaguing women scientists, from under-representation to sexual harassment

A recent photo posted on Facebook by the Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, Ashutosh Sharma, featured 41 heads of Indian educational and research institutions. Not one of them, as Shobana Narasimhan, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, pointed out, was a woman.

Only 20% of tenured faculty positions in Indian educational and research institutions are held by women. Other numbers are more skewed: only 12 women are Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences (there are 197 men); only 3 women are members of the governing councils of centrally funded institutions (there are 83 men).

These were some of the startling facts discussed at the first meeting of the Gender in Physics working group of the Indian Physics Association (IPA), held on 22 March at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bangalore.

Women are as capable as men are

The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics had set up a Women in Physics working group, back in 1999. Since 2002, it has been conducting the International Conference on Women in Physics every three years and also workshops which come up with recommendations and resolutions. At this conference, teams from various countries make presentations and share their experiences of how the gender disparity in physics can be addressed.

For Neelima Gupte, a professor at IIT Madras, the 2002 conference was an eye-opener. “For a long time, we hadn’t realised that many of the issues we faced were actually gender discrimination issues,” she said.

Resmi Lekshmi of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, Trivandrum, attended the International Conference on Women in Physics twice, in 2014 and 2017. On both occasions, she says, “we couldn’t quite succeed in getting a male physicist to be part of the Indian team which attended the conference.”

Prajval Shastri, Professor, Indian Institute for Astrophysics, who also attended these conferences, found that every country except India had a working group. So on Women’s Day 2016, she and others made a proposal to the IPA to set one up, which she now leads.

An immediate outcome was that in March 2017, Resonance, the undergraduate science education journal; Physics News, the newsletter of the IPA; and Current Science, the flagship journal of the Indian Academy of Sciences, all published issues edited and authored entirely by women.

“This was to demonstrate that it is quite ordinary and regular for women to do what men do,” said Shastri. They had found, for instance, that at most 10% of articles in Physics News were authored by women. “Editorial boards think of only males when they think of a scientist. We wanted to show that there is no shortage of women who can do this too.”

The working group acknowledged that even within the IPA, there’s work to be done. Women are represented poorly in IPA’s decision making committees, and also when it comes to being chosen for its named lectures and awards. Until recently, only one out of the 24 chosen to deliver the CV Raman Lecture had been a woman.

Gender gap in science

At the country’s top graduate school for physics, the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Mumbai, only two out of 34 enrolled PhD students in the Department of Theoretical Physics are women. This is indicative of a trend in other top Indian institutions as well, despite that fact that women students make up about 45% of enrolments in undergraduate science programmes nationwide.

But the gender gap manifests itself in more insidious ways too. Suchetana Chatterjee, assistant professor at the Presidency University, Kolkata, argued that there is little correlation between performance in competitive examinations that are meant as entrance tests for graduate school, and one’s eventual success in research.

She cited a 2015 study that showed that, in the US, a large fraction of the women and minorities who went on to be awarded prestigious research fellowships wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do their PhD at all, had their admission to graduate school been based purely on their scores on the physics GRE.

This, she argued, holds in India as well – people from disadvantaged groups, including women, might come to believe that their under-performance in entrance exams implies that they aren’t good enough for research. Bindu Bambah, a particle physicist and professor at the University of Hyderabad, added that this becomes very evident from the interviews which follow entrance exams, where women candidates often display a lack of self-esteem.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment was discussed prominently at the meeting, with both the members of the Working Group and the audience admitting that institutional mechanisms for addressing cases of sexual harassment often do not work. Many cases go unreported, the victim being intimidated into silence. Even when harassment is reported, the victim may decide that it’s not worth the “mental stress” to fight a prolonged battle, said Tanusri Saha-Dasgupta, a senior professor at the SN Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata.

She spoke of a student who decided to go ahead and press for action against the accused, but no action was eventually taken. That this was no isolated case became clear from the discussion involving the audience members too – institutions tend to protect the accused men.

“Those whose misconduct has been proved should not be in positions of authority, at the very least,” said Rohini Godbole, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. But the question of what to do when the institutional mechanism fails needs to be pondered, she acknowledged. “Women often have no choice but to leave an institution where they have faced harassment, because they cannot get justice,” said Gupte. “Many such cases remain unknown outside those institutions.”

The working group could operate legal helplines but for the fact, as Shastri admitted, that it doesn’t have any funding at the moment.

Other problems abound: the difficulty in obtaining medical leave, the casual everyday sexist remarks and insinuations, getting shunted sideways into less important decision making bodies.

“The culture of science organisations is such that they do not give entry to women,” felt Anitha Kurup, a sociologist and professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. She also felt that scientists and social scientists need to interact more and work together to find better ways to close the gender gap in science and, crucially, that men needed to be involved in these discussions too.

“I never thought the next generation would be here facing the same problems that women of my generation have faced. It disheartens me,” said Bambah. “We have to put a stop to all this. It is about time.”

Nithyanand Rao is a freelance science journalist in Bengaluru