The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, has existed for almost 360 years.
In these 360 years, it has seen notable fellows like Isaac Newton (1672), Charles Darwin (1839), Michael Faraday (1824), Ernest Rutherford (1903), Albert Einstein (1921), Dorothy Hodgkin (1947), Alan Turing (1951) and Francis Crick (1959), and also Indian scientists. Correction: Indian male scientists.
The first Indian male scientist, Ardaseer Cursetjee, who was a Parsi shipbuilder and engineer belonging to the Wadia shipbuilding family, was elected to be part of the society in 1841. Almost 180 years later, Gagandeep Kang, an Indian woman scientist has been elected to the society. Why did it take so long for this to change to occur?
Speaking to News18, Gagandeep Kang, who is currently the Executive Director of Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, said that she was 'delighted' that her research designed and done in India has been recognized. As a medical researcher trained in India at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, she believes that "our training and ability is second to none." However, she adds that "As a woman, I certainly hope my election is not because of, or despite, my gender."
Kang said the reason that there is a 180-year-gap time period is because, "Women who take on and address big problems in medical research over long periods on time in India are rare."
She also believes that the reason lies in the lack of recognition of work of the women scientists. The Fellowship requires a nomination. While she adds that there are outstanding women scientists in other fields of science, they may not have been nominated at all.
Interestingly, the Royal Society did not have any women Fellows until 1945. While there was no explicit prohibition of women as Fellows of the Royal Society in its original charters and statutes, election to the Fellowships was for much of the Society's history de facto closed to women.
The first instance of a woman being elected was a scientist called Hertha Ayrton, who was nominated for Fellowship in 1902, but had her candidature was turned down on the basis that she was a married woman. Eventually, in 1945, Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson, two women scientists were were given a spot, after a postal vote amending the Society's statutes to explicitly allow women Fellows.
In 1945, that is 285 years after the Royal Society had been in existence.
"I certainly hope that at least at higher levels, the scholarship is recognised despite gender. For younger women, there is a systematic bias, because we do not facilitate advancement in science by addressing all the components of what it takes to manage a home and family in today's world," said Kang.
Other Indian women scientists have revealed that the prime years of a scientists research are the same ones which collide with the prime years of motherhood - and these two collide to the point where the woman has to often pick one or the other.
The system essentially is set up for men who have support, not for women.
Kang agrees. She says that the system is designed in a way where women are weeded out in the process. Kang raises some serious questions, "Why are flexible working hours, job shares, child care at workplaces so difficult to achieve? Why can women who take time out for full-time child or parental care not come back and work as long as they were away?"
"There are many ways of changing the way we function as societies, but we need to approach it not as favours but as ways of ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to contribute at the ages and stages that are right for them."
Katie Bouman, who has been credited for taking the first ever picture of the black hole, received hate, trolling and also people dismissing her work, claiming that 'an entire team' or 'other people' should be credited for the end result, instead of her.
Kang notes that this phenomenon, called the Matilda Effect, where a man is given credited for a woman's work, is something that exists in all professions, not just women in fields of STEM, but it is something she has noticed it her colleagues as well.
"Women are under-appreciated and under-recognised to the extent that many women buy into the narrative and do not put themselves forward as they should. I have done that for decades, and I think it is rare women who by their nature or their environment find themselves doing as well as their ability and training allows."
She feels fortunate to have been pushed into situations of leadership. Now, she tries to pass it onto her younger colleagues.
Kang has worked for the last 30 years on gut infections in Indian children and what those infections do to children in terms of their nutrition and mental development. She has tried to approach the problem in many ways, trying to find solutions, and one of the by-products of her research has been the building of a team to support the development of vaccines in India and networks that generate data to support policy decisions by the Indian government.
Kang was part of the Royal Society of London's announcement of the list of 51 eminent scientists elected to its fellowship in the year 2019.