Women in science: India makes strides in closing gender gap

number of women in science rises
Women in science: Data from the Department of Science and Technology shows a rise in the number of women in scientific and technological fields in the last two decades.

Women in science: Science and scientific research have been male bastions throughout history. Great women scientists were hardly credited for their contributions. If asked to imagine a scientist, most people would picture a man than a woman. Successful women in science are thought of as exceptions, and not a rule. However, with changing times and need, more and more women are leaving their mark in the field and are eagerly contributing to the body of knowledge.

The Indian women of science face a larger problem. Apart from the general bias against them in the field of science, they also face the feudal mindset prevalent in the country. For Indian women looking for role models in the field, there have been only a handful of names — Soumya Swaminathan, Gagandeep Kang, N Kalaiselvi and ISRO scientists including VR Lalithambika, Muthayya Vanita, Ritu Karidhal, TK Anuradha, Nandini Harinath and N Valarmathi.

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Indian women in science

This could be changing, if the latest data by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) is to be believed. The department has confirmed a rise in the participation of women in scientific and technological fields over the last 20 years. From 13.9% in 2015 to 18.7% in 2018, the participation of women researchers has been on a rise in the country.

Usually, humanities and social sciences still register higher participation of women researchers, but the increase in their presence in the field of science is heartening. Women are also found occupying key research and leadership positions in institutions such as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Defence Research & Development Organisation and Indian Space Research Organisation.

The appointment of Dr N Kalaiselvi as the first woman director general of India’s largest research and development organisation, the 80-year-old Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), earlier this month has also underlined the significant trend.

More than a quarter of participants in extramural R&D projects in 2018-19 were also women. This is a significant jump from 13% in 2000-01. The number of women principal investigators in R&D had risen more than four times from 232 in 2000-01 to 941 in 2016-17.

What could be the reason for the sudden spurt in the number of women in scientific research? A lot can be credited to individual enterprises, but successive governments have also done their bit to promote gender diversity through grants and rewriting of infrastructure for greater gender inclusivity.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, threw a spanner in the participation of women, not only in the workforce but also in higher studies as people lost their livelihoods, or even sole breadwinners in some cases. This led to a higher percentage of women either leaving studies altogether or leaving workspaces due to restrictions at home.

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The way ahead

Analysts believe that the focus of the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 is now on course to meet its target of having at least 30% women at the post-doctoral level by 2030. To that end, DST is also eyeing to incorporate a grading system called GATI which will assess institutes based on the enrolment of women and the impetus to career of women in its ranks.

India still ranks dismally on the Global Gender Gap 2018 report – at 108 out of 149 countries. The country is soon to leave China behind in becoming the most populous nation in the world while half of its population still fights issues at home and outside which hamper their involvement in formal jobs.

While the overall data shows an upward trend in participation of women, women researchers in engineering and technology are fewer than in natural sciences, health and agriculture. At the post-doctoral level, there are fewer women researchers than the global average.

According to an all-India survey on higher education, there is a significant lag in female participation at doctoral levels. This can be attributed to societal pressure to get women married and then due to family planning. In India, marriage takes precedence as most families still take marriage as a measure of a woman’s success, and not career. Until there is a significant shift in this thought process, no drastic progress can be achieved in women’s cause.