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Women researchers in Science and Engineering, in India


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India is home to above 4000 colleges that constitute Engineering faculty and around 10,000 colleges that have Science faculty. Among them, 14 Universities are run exclusively for women. While there is no doubt that the overall women's literacy rate is steadily increasing as compared to previous decades; it is of no match to the male literacy rate. One of the major reasons is that girls drop out as they climb the ladder towards higher education due to varying reasons which require discussion on its right. Besides, not all those who enrolled for higher studies and obtained degrees have not converted it to careers. And for those who enter into career life, there are several factors like biological clock, family and societal pressures, mid-career breaks due to child-bearing and caring, catering to the needs of elders or ailing family members, etc. shape much of their career.

As a female scientist who belongs to both the faculties of Science and Engineering and has worked with both Indian and western scientific communities, I was able to experience the difference between the two worlds. And the fact that I have come across Indian female colleagues (both in India and western countries) who have shared their experiences, have made my understanding of the realities much deeper. The advantage of involvement in both Science and engineering gives me the privilege to discuss the present scenarios on varying factors like gender-based constraints, hierarchies, caste systems, professional development, etc.

The world constitutes 30% of women scientists and the International community calls for radical improvement to bring equality for the greater benefits of humankind. This being said, in India, only 14% of female scientists (in overall Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics [STEM]) are there, which indicates that there is a need for a high amount of improvement. Several factors play a role in determining whether a woman enters the workforce and much more of them that decides whether they get to stay in the workforce (holds true for any field of work). Besides, Science and Engineering fields require long hours of work that needs some basic infrastructure/facilities and good safety principles in line, for women to be involved in full fledge.

The main reason for the low percentage of women scientists in India is the perception in the society that science & technology are not for women. For example (true story), a recruiter asks only a female candidate whether she plans to get pregnant during the course of her time (or in the initial months) in the Institution. Such a question is never raised to a male candidate. Because bearing a child is considered a hindrance to the work for which she will be recruited and the society has the notion that nurturing the child is the sole responsibility of a woman. This either creates a tremendous amount of pressure on the woman’s decision on family life or takes a toll on the career life. To be precise, a woman is under indirect pressure to choose between her career and family. Whereas, the mutually beneficial and appreciable growth can be the one which paves way for the growth of both the recruiter and the candidate without any discrimination.

Career breaks: As the biological clock ticks, women choose to have a child which requires them to take career breaks. Some also take it for the need to cater to elder/ailing family members. After the career breaks, it gets even more difficult to keep up in the academics’ race. This meaning, that there is a real struggle for women to not just enter the faculties but also to keep their foot and get rooted there. As a result, only a few women are entering the scientific community and more than half of them quit as the situations arise while in the middle of the ladder up to higher roles. This leaves just a handful of women who overcome the struggles or get a support system and hold on to the career life, finally occupying leadership roles.

This further means that there are very few female role models that are there in these faculties or overall in STEM to look up to for the upcoming young female researchers. And the complete absence or lack of more women scientists in higher official or leadership roles leaves the room empty or the voice gets underrepresented when gender-related issues are raised. This also hinders the gender-specific improvement to be made in the workforce.

Another important reason for the below-average percentage of women in these faculties is the fear of safety. When it comes to research, one needs to be ready to spend countless hours in the laboratory. As much as the women researchers might be curious and intrigued to find answers for the problems they have chosen to work on, the present scenarios don’t allow (or are not up to high standards) for them to work at any time they want or the research requires. For example, some of the research facilities might be busy during the day or might require long hours of input from the researcher, requiring them to stay past normal working hours. However, the prevailing gender-specific safety standards do not make it easier for women. Even if the standards are good enough, the family commitments might hinder them to handle it as needed.

Finally, there are also the combinatorial caste-based and gender-based priorities that are practiced within an Institution, which makes the entry for women researchers tough. While a position has to be solely filled by merit-based, many opportunities are being missed due to such social hierarchical influence. All in all, there needs to be a greater code of ethics in recruitment and gender equality measures that are need to be strictly followed, for seeing a real increase in the entry number of women researchers in academics, further for them to stay longer and reach leadership roles.

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