India woos its women scientists

K. S. Jayaraman

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.144 Published online 14 March 2008

The government made the announcements at a meet for women scientists

Women scientists in India will soon be able to choose flexible working hours and even work from home if they have children below the age of three. Campus housing will be provided for women and all institutions will be required to establish state-of-the-art crèche.

Science minister Kapil Sibal has also announced that women selected for fellowships and awards by science academies will get a research grant of one million rupees per year for five years. The ministry is planning a standing committee to constantly monitor issues of women scientists, says science secretary Tirumalachari Ramasamy.

The announcements made March 8 at a conference of women scientists in New Delhi stem from recommendations of a government task force on women scientists set up two years ago. The panel headed by renowned nutritionist Mahtab Bamji found that women scientists faced discrimination, sexual harassment and other problems besides their poor representation in committees and science faculties.

"We welcome these moves to improve the working condition of women scientists," Bamji told Nature India. "But the government is yet to repeal its policy that discourages husband and wife to work in the same institution," she said. "This policy affects women more adversely than men and needs to be revisited."

The conference attended by some 700 women scientists (and practically no men) demanded more opportunities for women for re-entry after a break in service due to domestic or other reasons.

The recommendations also called for a gradual increase in the proportion of women in science faculties to reach a minimum of 30% in all workplaces. "Every selection committee should have 20% women; every conference should have a minimum of 20% women speakers except in biology where this number should be 30%."

"So many women scientists are doing excellent work but they do not get nominated for awards," says Vineeta Bal, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Immunology and one of the conference organizers.

The profession can make women invisible — not rising far enough to step into leadership roles

For instance out of nearly 400 scientists who received the Bhatnagar Prize - the nation's highest award - between 1958 and 2007, only about a dozen are women. Bal says many women scientists lose out in the pursuit of their profession in the early phases. "Even for those who cross this hurdle successfully, the profession can make them invisible — not rising far enough to step into leadership roles, and not getting recognition."

This seems to be the case in businesses too. A recent study by the Confederation of Indian Industry says that while there is a healthier ratio of women in junior management, "this ratio declines in senior positions, coming down to almost universal levels of male leadership in the topmost positions."

Though the new measures announced by Sibal were targeted at women scientists in the institutions under his ministry, other government agencies are joining in.

The Defence Research Development Organization (DRDO) with 50 laboratories is "already acting" on the conference recommendation of flexible working hours for its women scientists, according to its director general M. Natarajan. Speaking at a function to mark DRDO’s golden jubilee celebration in Bangalore on March 12 he said DRDO will study the feasibility of implementing other recommendations. Women constitute nearly 15 per cent of the DRDO’s work force of 30,000 scientific, technical and supporting staff.

One reason why very few women scientists are at the top is that many women drop out of the pipeline after completing PhD, says Kunthala Jayaraman, former head of biotechnology at Anna University in Chennai. She attributes this loss partially to the women being "forced by their families to get married."

Other reasons for the loss of trained scientific woman power are expected to emerge from a study launched last year by a panel constituted by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore.