Challenges in Science-related Careers for Indian Women

science & women Urban India is rapidly evolving in terms of equal occupational opportunities for women in the corporate sector. Although, there is still a long way to go in achieving complete gender equality, but there is consistent progress in the corporate sector and the government’s policies as well. However, science is one of the areas, which has been a traditional stronghold of men in India, with very little opportunity for women to rise to decision-making positions. Marginalization of women in science related careers is a worldwide phenomenon, and India is no exception.

In 2004, the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) had constituted a committee to evaluate the position of science careers for women, and suggested measures to increase the participation of women in this field. The committee found that the women who pursue careers in science typically take up teaching jobs or faculty positions in Universities. Positions of scientists and researchers are rarely filled by women. Very few women have been recognized for achievements in the field of science. The committee pointed out that fewer women get nominated for awards and recognitions because of their lower visibility and lack of networking.

In the field of Physics, the percentage of women in the fellowship of academies, funding committees and decision making bodies is very low. Just 2 out of 279 fellows of the Indian Science Academy are women, and at INSA also the number is 2 out of 112. This percentage is disproportionate because there are nearly 20 percent of women pursuing Ph.D. in the area.

To encourage the participation of women in the field of science, the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) has come up with an innovative Women Scientists Scheme (WOS) that aims at providing opportunities to women scientists and technologists between the age group of 30 to 50 years. Under this scheme, women scientists are encouraged to opt for research in leading areas of science and engineering. The scheme provides sufficient flexibility for women to undertake research at an appropriate institution as per their specific area of interest.

A report released by the Inter Press Service (IPS) in November, 2009 revealed that only 10 out of the 443 Indian scientists who were awarded the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) award in the last 50 years were women. An investigation conducted by the IPS pointed out that the selection committees for awards as well as for appointments to R&D positions in government backed institutions are male dominated and biased in their favour. Furthermore, the investigation found that a gender-wise analysis of the data related to three important national awards - SSB, Young Scientist and National Bio Science award - reveals a consistent marginalisation of female scientists and technologists.

The government of India is beginning to realize the problem of lack of career opportunities and hurdles in career advancement for women in science related fields. In July, 2009 the Minister of Science and Technology in New Delhi acknowledged that the number of women scientists in India is very low, and there are multiple problems that need to be resolved in this regard. The government is considering making “Gender Audits” compulsory in scientific establishments. “I hope there will be a day when we will be known as scientists who also happen to be women, rather than women scientists," laughs Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, the only female director of a National Research Laboratory under the Science Ministry in India — the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC).

There needs to be a fundamental change in attitude towards women in science related careers. Especially, in a country like India where pure science is still largely a government and public sector dominated area, it is important that clear policies are formulated to pave way for creating more opportunities for women in this field.


- Vikas Vij (views expressed in the article are that of the author)


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