|Women (and men) with a passion for science management. The authors Bela Desai (front row 2nd from left) and Shahid Jameel (back row extreme left) can be seen.|
Note: This is the unedited version of our article, which appeared in the Indian Express on 9th October, 2017 under the title "Women of Science"
A news item on the front page of Indian Express newspaper (02.10.2017) lamented how only 16 women scientists have won the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award since its inception in 1958. The Bhatnagar award is the highest research award given to a scientist, under 45 years of age, for research carried out in India. This year’s awardees are all male. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which administers this award states that only “science is discussed when the advisory committee meets to discuss nominations”. One of us, a former Bhatnagar awardee, has sat on this committee and supports CSIR’s claim. However, the problem lies elsewhere.
We write from our experience of researching at India’s premier institutions and working at the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance - a partnership between the Wellcome Trust, a British charity and the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India – dedicated to supporting biomedical research in India.
Women make up 37% of PhD’s in science overall but the percentage of women holding faculty positions in science research institutions is less than 15%. T(I. . here could be several reasons for this. For women, the childbearing age coincides with the age that requires the greatest dedication to the lab to establish oneself. Women also have to deal with the “two body problem”, whereby institutions do not give faculty jobs to both partners. This is slowly changing.
It is against cultural conditioning, against great odds and while running against the biological clock that women have to establish themselves. These daunting circumstances lead many women in their 30’s to dropping out of the STEM workforce. The base of the pyramid never becomes wide enough to support a peak – a phenomenon called “the leaky pipeline”.
During 2010-16, the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) elected about 230 Fellows, of which only 30 were women. This is not restricted only to India but it is a global phenomenon. A 2013-14 survey of 69 science academies worldwide showed only 12% of their members to be women. There is also a dearth of women in leadership positions as heads of research institutes or in higher decision-making committees where they can influence policy. We believe that the low numbers of women researchers getting the Bhatnagar Award or fellowship of science academies is a yet another consequence of the “leaky pipeline”.
Statistics at India Alliance also show evidence of this. So far, we have awarded 280 fellowships to researchers of the highest caliber and 31% of our Fellows are women. However, a close examination of numbers reveals a different picture. For our early career fellowships, awarded to scientists who have recently finished their PhD, 51% of the awardees are women. But for the intermediate and senior fellowships, awarded to scientists to establish a new research program or expand an already established research program, there is drastic drop – only 22% of the awardees are women.
How can the “leaky pipeline” be plugged? The change has to be at two levels - attitude and policy.
Real change requires a smaller effort across a larger population – a change in the mindset of the people, a gentle breaking down of stereotypes. The male child who believes that girls are not good at Maths (or Science) will grow up to become the stalwart questioning the professional commitment of child bearing women. Girls should not be told that being an engineer or a scientist will make them less appealing. They should be given more opportunities to interact with successful women scientists and have role models. At India Alliance, we have commissioned short videos of 20 of our women Fellows to inspire others.
Young women researchers should know that they always have a choice. The tough times don’t last and like others who have traveled the same road earlier, they too will make it through. “Leelavati’s Daughters”, a book published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore (2007), chronicles the experiences of women scientists in India. It features many inspiring women who broke the glass ceiling to reach the top of Indian science. The ready availability of enlightened mentors, a terribly inadequate commodity in Indian science, would help young women just as much as they would young men. At India Alliance, all Fellows at the early career and intermediate levels must formally declare a mentor. On average, women scientists make up about a third of the membership of committees at India Alliance.
Real change also requires policy to push it forward. Two things critical for a researcher today is a position with stability and funds for research, the latter coming as fixed tenure grants. Though India has now increased maternity leave from 16 to 26 weeks, the effects of having a child on a woman’s career last much longer. This calls for increasing the time given to women researchers who have a child early in their career to apply for tenure. Typically, 5-7 years from appointment is given to researchers to seek tenure; adding a year or two to this timeline for women with young children will empower them to succeed. Similarly, a full cost one-year extension should be given on research grants to women scientists who take maternity leave during the term of the grant. Currently, India Alliance is the only funding agency in the country to do this. Other small steps such as the availability of a crèche within the institution will go a long way in making young women more productive.
More women are entering the STEM fields but the challenge now is to make them stay. This is not a time to lament but to act. Change begins small and change begins at home. Let’s tell at least one girl today that she is good at Maths and Science, and that she can grow up to be whatever she wants.
Bela Desai is a PhD in molecular biology from TIFR Mumbai. She is now a Grants Advisor at the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance.
Shahid Jameel set up and led the Virology Group at ICGEB, New Delhi for 25 years. He is now the CEO at the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance.