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'People are aware of the problems caused by the underrepresentation of women in STEM'

Participation of women is crucial for the multidimensional development of science, says eminent scientist Prof Rohini M Godbole
Last Updated : 25 February 2023, 22:36 IST
Last Updated : 25 February 2023, 22:36 IST
Last Updated : 25 February 2023, 22:36 IST
Last Updated : 25 February 2023, 22:36 IST

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Participation of women is crucial for the multidimensional development of science, says eminent scientist Prof Rohini M Godbole. She is the founding chairperson and currently a member of the ‘Panel for Women in Science’ initiative of the Indian Academy of Sciences, and is an honorary professor at the Indian Institute of Science. In an e-mail interview with DH’s Anitha Pailoor, she sheds light on the barriers faced by women in STEM, and the path forward.

You have been advocating a 'gender-neutral' approach to address the issue of inclusivity. And there have been studies and policies in this regard. But are they doing enough?

Various reports we brought out from time to time beginning from the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) report of 2004 to the latest one from the Inter Academy Panel have all suggested the same action plans. Some of the points have been acted upon, but many still remain to be attended to.

Since 2001, we have had many measures, mostly at the level of departments of the central government, to address some of the obvious hurdles in the way of women scientists, and also to attract young girls to STEM education/careers.

Institutes of Eminence have started special hiring drives to increase the fraction of women in the faculty. Some institutes are thinking of adding supernumerary positions for students in programmes with smaller number of women if necessary.

It is nice that now we, the scientists, have become aware of the lack of numbers of women. But we have a long way to go. While the above measures are very welcome and necessary first steps, I think what is missing is the more important exercise of evaluating the existence or lack of inclusivity in the work environment as well as in the typical progress path of a scientist. We are also missing actual measures to increase inclusivity in processes such as student/postdoc/faculty selection, election of fellows, selection for awards and fellowships and mentoring young scientists. These need to be developed by each organisation. For example, some institutes like IISc have very recently developed progressive tenure policy which can account for the hurdles posed by maternity leave. A broader discussion has to happen and consensus on these have to emerge from them.

What are the initiatives under the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 to incorporate equity and inclusivity?

The policy itself mentions and points out how the recommendations have to be implemented. When adopted, the government will have to roll out initiatives.

Gender Advancement Transformative Initiatives (GATI) have been rolled out even before the policy saw the light of the day. The group is working towards developing a charter for gender equity in India.

Has women's participation in STEM remained a women's problem? How do we overcome this?

Indeed, this is still a big issue. Increasing women's participation in STEM is still perceived as a problem of women to be solved by women. We need to mobilise men scientists — in the institutes, academies, in all fora.

You have been at the forefront of breaking gender barriers in STEM through research and advocacy. How have the scenarios changed over the years?

I am a glass-half-full person. Compared to 20 years ago, at least there are more people aware of the problems caused by the underrepresentation of women in STEM.

In my 25 years in IISc, this year for the first time there will be an institutional-level discussion on women in science on the occasion of International Women's Day (IWD). Raman Research Institute sees it fit to have a day full of discussions and activities on women in science on the IWD during its platinum jubilee year. Partly, it happens because there are now slowly a small number of women in leadership positions who also believe that it is necessary for institutions to take a stand and play an important role. For the first time, INSA has had a woman president and the Indian Statistical Institute has a woman director. So things are changing.

I hope they will change faster as the numbers increase and even more importantly when everybody realises the need for equity. All stakeholders should realise that the need is not only out of a sense of justice and fairness (that is needed of course) but because it is also important for a more multidimensional development of science.

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Published 25 February 2023, 18:19 IST

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