Science lab

Discrimination plagues women scientists in India, but the larger issue is social

A series of studies suggest that the so-called “secret sexism” in STEM fields is really not so secret

Scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation. Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

The sexism that plagues women in the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is no secret. The most recent reminder came from Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt, whose comments about women being a distraction in research settings ended up spotlighting the widespread gender discrimination that women in STEM face.

And it is not just women in the west who are struggling with systematic prejudice in this field. An article in the latest issue of India Today titled, “The Secret Sexism of Indian Science,” explores the “quiet culture” of sexism that Indian women scientists face — from their being asked by male colleagues to make tea to the lack of women in funding agencies.

However, a series of studies focusing on the issue suggest that the sexism in STEM fields in India is really not so secret. In 2004, the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) funded a study that found women held over a third of all science degrees in the country, but made up just 15-20 percent of tenured faculty. Six years later, a follow-up report found a near 11 percent decline in women in science, with the bulk of women remaining in low-level positions.

Despite a dramatic increase in women in STEM graduate programs, from 7.1 percent in the 1950s to 40 percent in 2009, the numbers are not translating to actual jobs or positions of power for women.

“By and large, women scientists are not getting due encouragement and opportunities,” says Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao, Head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. “There may still be some built-in prejudice and I am really concerned that outstanding young women are not able to be in proper academic positions.”

Workplace discrimination aside, ultimately the inequity Indian women in STEM are facing is a spillover from a much larger cultural problem that is playing out in the professional sphere. Despite much progress, the fact remains that India has gender problems that are not limited to any specific field.

From female infanticide to child marriage (the highest rate in the world) to pandemic violence against women and girls to the impact on women of the country’s sanitation crisis, the overall low position of women in India needs to be tackled.

The Indian girl child is born disadvantaged just by being born female. From religion to caste, Indian culture consistently degrades women, and the United Nations has gone as far as to identify India as the most dangerous place in the world to be born a girl. If women are not respected as human beings, how can they be respected as professionals and colleagues?

There is no doubt that women’s role in the field of STEM needs to be increased, and that age-old discriminatory beliefs about females being naturally poor in math and sciences must be challenged, not only in India but also around the world. Women need to speak out about workplace sexism period, and expose “secret cultures” by making them public.

Men also have a huge role to play in changing this reality by mentoring and supporting female colleagues. Women and girls must be encouraged to pursue and master a field that has remained closed to them for too long, and the glass ceiling in STEM needs to be shattered everywhere.

But there is no point in working to create a more supportive STEM environment without tackling the root of the problem –discrimination toward women that begins from the moment a girl is born. That is the challenge that should be a priority for all Indian men and women.

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