Are Indian Women Failing Science or Is Science Failing Indian Women?

This is a question troubling many young minds, inside as well as outside the scientific space. Scientific institutions in India claim to have made policies as well as programmes to encourage the participation of women in Science. However, despite such efforts, female scientists are still raising issues of gender inequality in science. Why, you ask? Simply because scientific institutions in this country have closed their doors to people on the margins, and opened it only for the powerful minorities.

This ‘gated-ness’ of science is precisely the issue feminists are tackling today.

An individual’s access to science is highly dependent on their social location in society. Needless to say, for a woman, her gender determines her accessibility to science. From being pushed into careers such as nursing, social working, women are advised to get into professions which have ‘feminine attributes’. Today women are breaking the culturally ascribed timetables for them, and entering the world of science which has been monopolized by men. Even though women are entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, the real question to ask is — are they treated as equals in practise? Are they given the same opportunities as men to lead and to control?

The above image, one of a team of women celebrating the success of India’s Mars Mission in 2014 swiftly went viral on the Internet. And it started a conversation about the gender inequality within the scientific community, one that has been pertinent over generations.

Women in science are visible as the ‘second sex’, but not as scientists.

Gender bias has permeated at a graduate level, promotional and performance levels, not giving proper credits where its due, salary and funding events. In fact, starting from school itself to professional occupations in science, Indian women have lagged behind in the race to become scientists.

The under-representation of women in the field of science is reflective of the obvious gender imbalance in science in India. Numerous scientific institutions in our country provide evidence for stark gender disparity by pointing towards marriage, child care, and family responsibilities. Interestingly, such duties are not expected out of male scientists as they are of female scientists. As a result, this implicit understanding implies that women are not suitable to advance in their scientific careers compared to their male counterparts.

Upon a closer look, a pyramidical structure is visible when it comes to the entry of women into science. That is, we see a lot of women entering the scientific domain, however, lesser and lesser women make it to the top. Why so? Simply because a lot of young women are forced to opt for ‘soft’ scientific professions such as teaching, so that they are ‘less pressurized’ and can easily balance work and family life. In fact, many women in science are not taken as seriously as men in terms of career advancement as they might drop out in order to cater to their ‘future roles’ as wives and mothers.

Apart from such implicit biases, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields mainly because of the lack of female role models to look up to. The reasons for this may be two fold — the lack of women in scientific careers or, the lack of recognition (and therefore, visibility) for women who are already pursuing these careers. For women, the road towards science is a bit foggy. If many women have not taken up the road to science, how are young women supposed to visualize their future path to science? How can women be something that they simply cannot see?

Many parents as well as educators inculcate the idea that males are expected to major in sciences or economics in higher studies, while women should study humanities or ‘arts’.

Such shared assumptions, and sexist exclusionary behaviour classifies males as ‘systematisers’ and women as ‘empathizers’, thus demoralising a lot of women who are yet to make their career choice.

Or for that matter, even while parents explain science to their children, the usage of the term ‘he’ is used instead of ‘she’, thereby indirectly informing their children that science is an activity pursued by males. Such gendered stereotypical language acts as mechanism making a distinction between who ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ do science. Unfortunately, this can diminish not only children’s interest in science, but also compromise the diversity of future scientific workplaces.

The topic of women in science unfolds the complex ways by which the scientific space is shaped by hidden power, privilege, and exclusion. Only if we start viewing science as a personal and social activity, instead of an impersonal one, can we decolonize science. That is, to uncover the implicit gender bias that exists within it.

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