Author(s): Kalpana Sharma
The Indian Women Scientists Association has yet to hear its first case of sex discrimination. But there is evidence that only very recent generations of Indian women are willing to acknowledge discrimination. Although Sudha Gangal, head of the department of immunobiology at the Cancer Research Institute (CRI), says she has never encountered discrimination, she acknowledges that women scientists are frequently overlooked for important positions in policy making as well as for receiving awards. Also, recently one female researcher was distressed to find that her junior male co-author was asked to give the public presentation of the findings of which she had been the lead author. According to Sharma, "He refused and she wound up giving the talk, but the fact that he was asked reflects a form of discrimination that is subtle and difficult to confront."
Indian women are not well represented in top scientific bodies. Last year, of the group of 628 and 698 scientists chosen as Fellows by the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Science, respectively, only 12 and 15, respectively, were women. An example of a possible problem is the case of Vineeta Bal, staff member of the National Institute of Immunobiology in New Delhi. She "finds that while her male colleagues have no qualms about pushing for promotions and salary increases, she hesitates, wondering whether she deserves such things-- even though she knows her work is superior to that of many of her male contemporaries."
The class system in India may protect female members of the upper classes from some discrimination, while members of the lower classes, often working as lab technicians or nurses, experience outright sexual harassment and other more direct forms of discrimination on the job. Poor village women also struggle against a deplorable literacy rate, prejudice, and superstition.
Although new opportunities in science for women were created in the 19th and the early 20th century, the only women who could fully enjoy such new circumstances were those who:
- had full-time domestic help (making marriage, motherhood, and a career possible).
- were not expected to be the chief breadwinner--giving them the leeway to enter a relatively low-paying field.
Promising new events mark new reasons for optimism among young scientists these days. In the last five years, 22% of the awards given by the National Science Academy to young scientists for doctoral and postdoctoral research have gone to women. Unfortunately, as women attain their Ph.D.s and begin heading their way up the ranks, many of them drop out of the pipeline. Kunthala Jayaraman attributes this loss partially to the women's being "forced by their families to get married." Another reason comes from institutionalized obstacles. Women students working on their Ph.D. now have a more relaxed curfew of 9:30 p.m.; the university authorities are concerned for the women's safety. Yet Jayaraman considers this "unfair for women working in laboratories and competing with male colleagues who are free to work whatever hours they choose at the lab bench."
Indian women scientists' careers start off quickly, yet slow down mid-career as networking and "fitting in" become as important as the quality of their work. "Men feel more at ease with their male companions and women don't push ahead to get into committees, which are training grounds for higher positions. The diffidence of women works against them," says Usha Deniz, a solid-state physicist.
And when women venture into male-dominated disciplines, they may not be accepted. Note the case of Kiran Mazumdar, a brewmaster's daughter who received a fellowship in Australia to study fermentation science, worked with her father, and became an independent consultant to several breweries. Yet when she sought a job she was well-qualified for as a master brewer, no one would hire her. Potential employers cited the toughness of the job, the irregular hours, the responsibility of handling unions, and not wanting the "responsibility" of a female master brewer as reasons for not hiring her.
As younger generations begin to acknowledge the often subtle discrimination that presents itself, they may become better prepared to overcome it.
--abstract Juliet Midgley