Science is believed to be associated with meritocracy and its standards are considered universalistic. Yet women in science and technology are very few in all parts of the world. And India is no exception to this.
Though the education and workplace environment in the last two decades for women in science and technology has witnessed a positive transformation, the deep-rooted issues in socio-cultural acceptance have not been adequately addressed. As a result, women are still facing gender disparity.
Worldwide, science is traditionally an area that is a stronghold of men. It is this perception that has led to the marginalization of women in science related careers – more so in India. It has been traditionally expected of women in India to be home-makers rather than professionals, negatively affecting the participation of women in science.
It was only in 2005 that a woman was appointed head of a national physics laboratory. There has been no woman president of the two national science academies, namely, the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Sciences.
Of the 179 fellowships granted by the first academy, only three have gone to women, and of the 112 granted by the second, only two have gone to women. Only eight women have received the most prestigious Indian Science Award out of 333 awarded since 1958.
Women are also under-represented on award-giving committees. Is it really a surprise then that women in India lag behind their western counterparts?
Although there is no explicit discrimination against women in enrolment and recruitment at the university or faculty levels, attitudinal biases against women and unsupportive institutional structures have over the years operated as powerful forces against talented women realizing their full potential in the pursuit of productive and rewarding careers in science.
In the field of science, one cannot work “part-time”. Most working women in India play dual roles of a home-maker and professional. And sometimes handling both at the same time becomes challenging.
Here women tend to opt out or “take a break”, but re-entering the field becomes all the more difficult. In addition to such workplace problems, there is lack of support from family. More often than not, a girl child in India is educated only up to a certain degree and then married off.
Even if a woman works, the stringent pressures to look after the family and houses results in women changing their jobs to something more manageable and convenient; or giving up their careers entirely.
This situation is slowly changing but a lot more needs to be done in order to attract women to science and more importantly, to retain them in the profession. A beginning has been made by the Ministries concerned of the government to redress this.
The most recent of these is the decision taken by the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, headed by C.N.R. Rao, to set up a National Task Force on Women in Science. Several women scientists from leading Indian centers of science have taken time off their own work to research and campaign on these issues at academic and professional fore.
Women in India are qualified, driven and ready to overcome barriers. The challenge will be to successfully address the many problems that our society still faces.