How many scientific women do we have in our myths and history? Everybody talks about Leelavati.
But her name crops up largely because she was Bhaskaracharya’s daughter. All we seem to know is how he would put mathematical questions to her as a young girl and how she would respond to them with accuracy in an instant. Although Leelavati remains an icon, when we think of a great mathematician we would need a different yardstick to measure their contribution.
The science education imparted and the textbooks available also contribute to the lag. Take the findings of Sugra Chunawala, an associate professor with the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai. In 2006-07, she had analysed NCERT science textbooks from Class III to Class X by simply looking at the images – not the content – presented. Among the human figures in these textbooks, she found the majority was men. Women were also shown, but largely as passive onlookers. At the same time, more women were shown in traditional roles. A disproportionate number of nurses were depicted as women, while the doctors tended to be men.
The situation within the family is yet another factor, given the almost complete sway of patriarchy within it. If parents are very well off and there are no financial constraints, then they will probably spend equally on the education of their sons and daughters. But if there is minor financial constraint, the daughter will be the first to get affected. I have heard women saying that their brothers went to medical college because there was a donation to be given and this meant that their parents could not afford to send them to medical college as well, so they settled for “only science”. We also know that although dowry is legally prohibited, it continues to be practiced. We often see the expenditure that would be incurred on a daughter’s wedding becoming a factor in the calculations behind educational investments."
Then there are the hurdles even after women take the plunge and decide to make careers as scientists. Usually the husband is older, so he finishes his research studies first and starts looking for a job. His wife will invariably have to opt to live in the same city where he gets the job. By that time the couple may decide to have a family. Once that happens any hope the woman may have had of keeping up with her research priorities gets dissipated. The respective career paths of the man and the woman are thus marked out. Women are also socially trained to get more affected by domestic crises, even if they have supportive spouses. This, again, is about self-image and cultural imprinting that cannot easily be changed.
Women for science?
So what is the status of women scientists? As is evident, they are in a minority, they are possibly not as productive because of family responsibilities, and they often do not want to take on administrative positions like directorships. This is for basically two reasons. One, they think it entails too much responsibility, given their domestic commitments; two, existing social realities make it difficult even today for men to take orders from a woman. All these aspects contribute towards creating the major gender gap that presently exists at the highest administrative and policy-making levels of India’s scientific establishments today.
Change is taking place, but slowly. Of late, science administrators have begun to take note of the smaller proportion of women scientists. While women may comprise about 50 per cent of students who do their PhDs in biology – their presence is of course much lower in mathematics and physics – at the post-PhD stage, when the time comes for them to join institutions, not more than 20-25 per cent emerge. In other words, about half the qualified women scientists are simply dropping out of the system. This is a loss not just in terms of gender representation but in the investment made in training them. There is indeed a dire need to ensure that the science laboratory space is rendered more gender equal.