Minnie Vaid’s new book tells the story of the team of women scientists that led ISRO’s Mangalyaan mission. In this excerpt, the author looks at the problematic history of gender bias in Indian science.

 

 

Fade in: Santo, a young girl of twelve, is reading a book about Mars in her home in Rewari district, Haryana. A visitor asks her what she wants to be when she grows up—a doctor or an engineer. “Astronaut,” she replies softly. The man says, “In our community those who are able to get to Delhi are considered successful. If they reach London or America, they become examples to be followed. First get to Delhi, then think about sitting in a rocket and reaching the moon.” The little girl’s face falls.

Over the next few days, even as her mother admonishes her—“Your final exams are approaching and you’re fixated about Mars?”—she paints her father’s helmet astronaut-white, calling it her Mars helmet, makes a model rocket and installs homemade star lights in her room. Her mother tells the father they should talk Santo out of her childish phase or she won’t do well in her exams. The father believes that this could be her dream and she should be encouraged. They decide to gift her a laptop. The mother hugs her saying, “You have to become Rewari’s dream, use the laptop as a rocket and fly off to Mars. My astronaut.”

The tagline, GIFT THEM CURIOSITY, GIFT THEM DREAMS, appears on the screen and the video ends. This Lenovo ad, championing the girl child, skillfully subverts age-old stereotypes. In doing this, it provides hope for the future of the girl child, all in less than three minutes.

If only real life were that simple.

One hundred and thirty-two years ago, when Dr Anandibai Joshi became India’s first female physician with an MD degree from an American medical college, she could not have imagined that the women following her example would be facing similar battles more than a century later. A few years after Dr Joshi, in 1933, Dr Kamala Sohonie was denied admission to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru by Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman, solely because of her gender. It was only her persistence which enabled her to complete three years at IISc and move on to Cambridge University to receive a doctorate in science.

How many of us have heard of Janaki Ammal, Anna Mani, Asima Chatterjee, Rajeshwari Chatterji, Charusita Chakravarty and Mangala Narlikar? These pioneering women scientists were a mix of physicians, botanists, chemists and physicists working against formidable odds to carve their place in the history books. Their contributions are mostly known within the academic community or to students researching gender in Indian science in the early 1990s.

The sex ratio at the IISc, a premier institute for scientific research in India, has risen from 2% in the 1960s, i.e. two female students for 100 male students, to 19% in 2016. The progress hasn’t quite been meteoric. Every woman learning, teaching or practicing science in India has her own unique set of challenges, even with predecessors and role models providing hope on a difficult path.

Here are a few indicators of how tough it is to be a female scientist, not just in India:

Women make up only 28.8% of those employed in scientific research and development across the world.

They are less likely to enter and more likely to leave careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

They are poorly represented in science academies—there are only 12% female members in 69 science academies worldwide.

Only 17 women have been awarded a Nobel Prize in the three science categories since the award’s inception in 1901.

The latest joint winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 2018, Canadian Donna Strickland, is the first female laureate in 55 years and only the third woman to win in physics. Her short Wikipedia page was created after she received the Nobel.

Closer home, India’s top science prize, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award has been given to only 16 women out of a total of more than 500, since its inception in 1958.

Women also receive less than 5% of the fellowships awarded by the three major national science academies, are quoted less often, rarely invited as speakers at plenary science conferences and hardly ever head advisory committees or science academies. Only one out of the Indian National Science Academy’s 41 past office bearers was a woman, and just 14 out of INSA’s 501 awards were given to women.

Most importantly, there is a major dearth of women in leadership positions, as heads of scientific centres and organisations, research institutes or in higher decision-making committees. Unconscious or implicit biases limit women’s progress in scientific and engineering fields.

Numerous social and environmental factors cause the obvious disparity between the numbers of male and female scientists, not just in India but also across the world. Gender roles prime women to assume the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities from an early age, along with maneuvering the work-family balance. Coping strategies such as ensuring a support system at home with in-laws or domestic help, flexible timings, and working in the early hours are principally applicable to the woman scientist. Finding time to do science, which is not a nine-to-five job, or putting in longer hours at the lab/office to make that breakthrough comes at a high cost. Many women scientists limit themselves to less challenging positions, stopping short of jockeying for higher posts, which involve travelling, to ensure they have sufficient time and energy to perform the other roles expected of them. This has its inevitable effect on recruitment. Both male and female scientists interviewed for this book affirm that, all things being equal, a male candidate is often preferred over a female. Such biases, which position men as “born leaders”, set them on the path of career success while leaving women on the sidelines, or making choices that are seen to be easier. Those women who consciously choose and work hard at building successful careers in science are considered trailblazers for a new generation of girls, for whom gender will be irrelevant someday.

 

Excerpted with permission from ‘Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines: ISRO’s Mission to Mars’, by Minnie Vaid, published by Speaking Tiger

 

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