The Indian Girl’s Guide to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

Deepika Sarma
Grist Media
Scientists at ISRO celebrating Mangalyaan's success. Photo by AFP

On October 14 this year – Ada Lovelace Day – a handful of people assembled in a café near Bangalore’s Ulsoor lake, typing away on their laptops to add material on Indian women scientists to what is possibly the world’s most read encyclopedia: Wikipedia. Three days before, a much larger group had gathered at the Lotka –Volterra computer teaching lab at the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Ecological Studies with the same purpose. A handful of organizers, 15 participants from the institute, and around 10 more participants – online, but elsewhere – proceeded to enter names, dates, career achievements and biographical details. It may sound like a mundane activity, but the organizers, who included the all-women team of a non-profit science outreach initiative, had been working for two months to organize this Wikipedia edit-a-thon. And at the end of Ada Lovelace Day, material on around 40 Indian women had been added – names we haven’t grown up with but should have. Anandibai Joshee, who in 1886 became the first Indian woman to get a degree in Western medicine; Janaki Ammal, a path-breaking botanist during the Second World War and Anna Mani, a pioneering physicist who published five single-authored papers while working in CV Raman’s lab between 1942 and 1945.

Last month, this trio joined the women whose profiles were freshly created or updated on Wikipedia – their place made firm on the Internet, while they continue to be absent from history textbooks. Read the carefully composed but Wiki-standard ‘objective’ profiles and you get the beginnings, the barest glimpse into the enormous endurance, intelligence and suffering of these early scientists. Hear about the love and energy poured into the edit-a-thon and you get a sense of the search contemporary Indian women scientists are on both for their place in the present and for their forgotten ancestors.

Delhi-based non-profit Feminist Approach to Technology published a study in 2014 which examined the performance of middle and senior schoolgirls and boys in science subjects in classes 8 and 9. They found that as the children moved from middle to senior school, girls tended to outperform boys in science and maths, but were less likely to pursue those subjects for higher studies. According to the Department of Science and technology, in 2005, only 37 percent of PhDs in science were held by women. And a 2004 report by the Indian National Science Academy concluded from the little data it could gather that the percentage of women occupying faculty positions in most research institutions and prestigious universities was less than 15 percent. Why are so many women slipping out of science along the way?

The scientific establishment’s inability to attract enough women and keep them in the workforce is a large enough problem for it to feature in interactions between nation’s governments. Women in science has been identified as “a priority area for engagement” between the US and India – in July 2014, the two countries organized an exchange on “Evidence-Based Techniques to Advance Gender Equality in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” And at the huge Indo-US Technology Summit that is on this week in Noida, a workshop has been organized to promote women in science.

The late Anna Mani, pioneering physicist and meteorologist. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia

Throwing Like A Girl, Experimenting Like A Boy

Here’s a question. Why is it important to have women in science at all?

The range of scientific research can only be as varied as the interests of its researchers, what heats of the curiosity of the individual scientist and in turn the establishment s/he becomes part of. The highly respected experimental physicist Athene Donald began her career around forty years ago as one of 8 women in a class of 100 at Cambridge. When she began her research into soft matter physics and its application to living organisms, her peers laughed at her and told her that it’s wasn’t physics, but today the work she kick-started might lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s. Primatologist Alison Jolly – among the first generation of women primatologists in the 1960s like Jane Goodall – is said to have changed evolutionary biology forever. Through her work in the forests of Madagascar, she shattered the faith held until then that males are dominant in all primate species. She was also able to prove that social ties and environment, rather than ecological factors, led to the evolution of higher intelligence among primates.

The continued underrepresentation of women, Dalits and minorities in sciences is not ‘only’ a social justice problem. It leads to a homogeneous, stagnant approach to problem solving, when science itself says, “groups of diverse problem-solvers can beat groups of high-ability problem solvers.”

Some months ago, the poster-covered stairway of the Bangalore bookshop Blossom featured a small flier asking for volunteers for a National Centre for Biological Sciences study in the human throwing motion. The study asked unselfconsciously and specifically for men. And why would the flier be self-conscious when this until very recently has been the norm for science?

The gendered language of science and technology (where mechanical or electrical parts are assigned genders – for example, a bolt is ‘male’ while a nut is ‘female’) is often a reflection of cultural gender stereotypes. Biology once saw female eggs as “passive” agents and sperm as “active” ones. Right up to the 1990s, even. Johns Hopkins researcher Emily Martin’s study was the first to do major damage to the ‘warrior sperm and damsel-in-distress egg’ trope. A developmental biologist who came around early to Martin’s theory said, “If you don’t have an interpretation of fertilization that allows you to look at the egg as active, you won’t look for the molecules that can prove it. You simply won’t find activities that you don’t visualize.”

Or you could ask Sarah S Richardson why science needs diversity. Richardson’s 2013 book Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genomeshows that the X and Y aren’t ‘sex chromosomes’ after all. But once they were so named, around 30 years after they were discovered, it put blinkers on the way researchers approached chromosomes, bringing cultural gender stereotypes into the way scientists looked at the science of sex. And in some cases, resulting in some rather poor science – for instance, all the decades in which people wrongly believed that the XYY chromosome syndrome made men dangerous, violent and criminally inclined.

Aerospace engineer Anusha Mujumdar. Photo courtesy University of Exeter

We’re only just beginning to understand the impact of gender bias in research in areas such as women’s health. Until very recently, there was little medical research into women and cardiac disease because it was assumed that women didn’t have heart attacks. But the medical establishment has now admitted that the signs we think are the classic symptoms of a heart attack (the pain in the left arm, etc.) are all signs men have. Women experience heart attacks very differently and are often under-diagnosed, misdiagnosed and likely to die. Similarly, one-third of all osteoporotic fractures are said to occur in men. Since the disease continues to be seen as the problem of post-menopausal women, men are very rarely tested for it.

Why do we have so little information on cardiac diseases in women? Because science, medicine, drug trials all use male subjects, whether rodent or human, even to test drugs that are not gender-specific. Hormone fluctuations in women and potential harm to foetuses during trials – privileging women’s child-bearing ability over contributions to trials – have been seen as good reason to exclude women from studies in biology and medicine.

Because a male subject, in the minds of a male scientific establishment, is the neutral, the normal. It’s an argument that’s increasingly being seen as a flawed one, calling into question the very evidence basis of medicine. What this means is that in some cases, the medical treatment that women get, including drug dosage, may be far from right.

The US National Institutes of Health on May 2014 announced that it would roll out policies beginning in October that would require applicants for funding to report their plans for the balance of male and female cells and animals in preclinical studies. Amidst increasing recognition that men experience hormone fluctuations too, the NIH pointed out in its announcement that “[t]ypically, reasons for male focus in animal-model selection center on concerns about confounding contributions from the oestrous cycle. But for most applications, female mice tested throughout their hormone cycles display no more variability than males do, as confirmed in a meta-analysis.” But this skew has led to what is known as the drug-dose gap, where insufficient tests mean that women are receiving the wrong doses of medicine, and it while it may drive up the cost of studies, it doesn’t make financial sense in the long term – in 2005, it emerged that a male bias in drug efficacy and side-effect research led to the withdrawal of 8 out of 10 prescription drugs were withdrawn from the US market, because they affected women’s health. Taking sex differences into account can have a widespread impact on science, and the instinct to control for variation needs to be examined.

Geophysicist Nandini Nagarajan with colleagues on a field trip to Ladakh, 1988. Photo courtesy Nandini Nagarajan

Back to Bangalore and ball throwing. The NCBS scientist behind the study, Madhusudan Venkadesan, responded as unselfconsciously as his flier to my enquiry about the throwing study: “The current study in my lab is focused on understanding how humans achieve throwing accuracy at the same time as speed. […] Those who throw often in early childhood develop an arm morphology that aids in throwing at very high speeds. There is then a strong possibility that social and cultural factors that sometimes preclude girl children from outdoor play could in turn affect the throwing ability in women. This conjecture is plausible, but not yet scientifically proven. Nevertheless, because it is important for our study to control for such variation in morphology, we are looking primarily for men. The goal of our study is not to differentiate between motor function in men versus women, but simply to find consistently fast throwers, particularly those who have been throwing since early childhood.”

The assumption is that among all the humans who learn to throw balls as children, the small subgroup of gifted, consistently fast throwers are most likely male – and that the human throwing motion is equal to the male throwing motion. Even if, to borrow the scientist’s phrase, it is not scientifically proven.

Who knows where the men are? We are going to Mars

Anusha Mujumdar is a 27-year-old aerospace engineer from Bangalore. She’s one of only 35 women across the globe this year who have been awarded the Zonta International Amelia Earhart fellowship for research into aerospace, science and engineering. Mujumdar’s a part of the European Space Agency’s Mars Sample Return Mission, which will retrieve soil samples so scientists can study them to determine, among other things, whether there really is life on Mars. And she’s a third-year PhD student at Exeter in the UK, working in the Department of Applied Mathematics on verification and validation of spacecraft controllers. Her friends teasingly refer to her as a rocket scientist.

Around two and a half weeks ago, Mujumdar got married and moved to her in-laws’ home in a Bangalore suburb – when I visited her, I could still see the mehendi on her hands and her feet. Mujumdar grew up on the Indian Institute of Science campus. She says she was never “very good at science and math, but in the 8th and 9th standard, I had good science teachers and that was what motivated me to go into science, when I was around 13 or 14.” At some point she was struck by the discovery that she could find patterns in any system that can be expressed mathematically. “That really excites me,” she says. “The coolest thing I have done so far is work on the special controllers for the Airbus launch vehicle Ariane 5ME. I used some of my fellowship money to go to Airbus [an aircraft manufacturer] in Bremen, Germany, to work on it. The Ariane 5ME launches multiple satellites at a time, and to do that it has to stay in orbit for really long. One side of it faces the sun, so it has to keep rotating – the special controllers keep it evenly heated, preventing damage from thermal stress. And I worked on that."

Most female PhD students in India learn to answer grotesque questions about marriage in informal situations at work and during formal, career-changing, life-changing interviews. Mujumdar’s had to deal with enough of them, but I throw in one of my own: Why did she choose to get married before she finished her PhD? “It felt like the right time,” she tells me. But for now, she still has a year of her PhD left to complete, and her sights are set firmly on her career – in December, she’ll be back at Exeter to make sure spacecraft stay in the sky.

Geophysicist Nandini Nagarajan, extreme right, with fellow earth scientists at NGRI, Hyderabad, 1992. Photo courtesy Nandini Nagarajan

Marriage and families remain recurrent motifs in the daily drama of women in the scientific establishment, in their leaving of the scientific establishment. In the last decade and a half, the Indian government has made several efforts to encourage more girls and women to take up (and stay in) science. In 2003, the Council of the Indian Academy of Sciences constituted a committee on women in science, and later set up the Women in Science (WiS) panel, now chaired by particle physicist Rohini Godbole, the author of important work in the hadronic structure of high-energy photons. “The WiS panel's main initiatives included publishing books to inspire more women to take up science, and a report [an Indian Academy of Sciences and National Institute of Advanced Studies study in 2010, titled “Trained scientific women power: How much are we losing and why?”] which was not appreciated as much as I think it should have been – I haven't known any other study of that variety.” The panel also holds lectures and workshops on careers in science, and in February, the panel intends to organize its first conference with international collaborators.

In October 2004 came the Indian National Science Academy’s “Science Career for Indian Women – one of the first reports to attempt to examine why Indian women were dropping out of science. In 2008, a report by the Task Force on women in science set up by the Department of Science and Technology looked into the subject with greater depth, having conducted meetings with scientists across India and having sought information from a range of institutions. Both reports identified family pressure – to get married, or have children, or care for dependent relatives – as a significant reason for women failing to continue in science despite being qualified to do so.

Evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Shakti Lamba in Chattisgarh. Photo by Shakti Lamba, Creative Commons.

In 2010, the IAS-NIAS study examined the reasons for women with PhDs in science dropping out of their fields after doing a PhD. It surveyed 568 women scientists and 226 men scientists with PhDs in Science, Engineering or Medicine. Women were classified in three groups: women in research (WIR), women not in research (WNR) and women not working (WNW). Although the majority of women in all three groups were married, 14 percent of WIR between 30 and 70 – the highest in all groups – answered that they had ‘never married’. The corresponding figure for men in research (MIR) was 2.5 percent. When it came to children, 74.4 percent of WIR had children, a lower proportion than women in the other groups, including MIR – 86.3 percent of whom had children.

“Of course women have to choose,” says Anupama Surenjan, a third-year PhD student at IIT Chennai, with some heat. She tells me about a match that was arranged for her while was studying for her MTech degree, where the boy didn’t want her to do a PhD. He expected that she would relocate after marriage to a place near his workplace, and find an engineering job that would bring in money while causing the least disruption in his life. Surenjan chose her Ph.D.

Nandini Nagarajan, a 64-year-old retired geophysicist, was once the only woman in her class at IIT Kharagpur. In 1977, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) wanted the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism to install a continuously running magnetometer in Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. “I was given the task. I did everything from scratch – including passports to fly through Burma, permission letters from the Commissioner of the Andamans to buy a ticket to fly to the Andamans, instrument packing – in 4 days. I set up the instrument in a wooden hut and left soon after, and we managed to give ONGC 4 months’ data.” In 1988, she was the joint lead for a team to Ladakh – again, it involved permissions, instrument testing and deployment. “We camped outside Leh town for a month and bathed in streams. I brought a team of 3 vehicles and 4 colleagues back by the long route – through Srinagar, long before daily flights, cell phones, or even telephones were around.”

Nagarajan believes that one of the main reasons women are forced to drop out of science is “relocation, relocation, relocation.” Her husband, who works as a chemical engineer, had to move cities every 2 years for the first decade of their marriage. “Well, the only solution to that,” she says dryly, “is divorce.” “I'd have been far more senior without those interruptions. My contemporaries who didn’t have those problems went on to get promotions, and head groups and institutions.”

The IAS-NIAS study points out that a significantly lower proportion of men have reported breaks in career compared to women. “While personal factors such as health, further studies and voluntary retirement have led to breaks for men, for women, domestic responsibilities of childcare and care for elders have been the primary reason for the breaks in career,” it says.

Interestingly, the report found that the spouses of 41 percent of WIR were scientists too. “They all tend to pair off in the end,” senior wildlife biologist Rauf Ali chuckled over the phone from Pondicherry about the ecology students he’s had over the years. Swapna Neraballi, a 34-year-old wildlife scientist currently studying vegetation patterns in the Andaman Islands, agrees that it’s common for scientists in her field to pair up. “The couples I know tend to pick similar research interests and work locations so that they get to spend time with one another,” she says of her former classmates and colleagues. But Neraballi is married to a photographer who travels often on work, like she does. My long-distance phone conversation with her takes place at 6am on a weekday, before she heads out into the field with her assistants from Wandoor (South Andaman) to examine a plot of land in Alexandria for changes in vegetation, on which she’s been collecting data for a month. “The bottom line is, we spend a lot of time apart,” she says.

Anusha Mujumdar grew up on the Indian Institute of Science campus, where her father works as a scientist, and she grew up surrounded by men and women in science. Many of the women, she knows, had to take up less demanding jobs than their husbands after marriage or stop working entirely (significantly, the IAS-NIAS report points out that the largest proportion of qualified not working had spouses who worked in the same field or organizations, indicating that having a partner doing similar work didn’t necessarily mean they would be more supportive of a woman’s career in science). Mujumdar tells me she’s been lucky so far about not having to make a choice between a career in science and having a family. But later in our conversation, she mentions that she’s clear she wants to have children. “And I when I do that, I want to do it well…” she trails off. “I want to be a good mother…” For a moment, I see her confidence waver and wished I hadn’t asked the question. I had just contributed to the death by a thousand cuts on young women who are pushed to “leave before they leave.” In Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote, “From an early age, girls get the message that they will likely have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good wife and mother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs. In a survey of Princeton’s class of 2006, 62 percent of women said they anticipated work/family conflict, compared with 33 percent of men – and of the men who expected a conflict, 46 percent expected that their wives would step away from their career track. These expectations yield predictable results: among professional women who take time off for family, only 40 percent return to work full time. But women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way.”

Feeling At Home In the Lab

In 2004, Vineeta Bal of the National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi, found that 85.7 per cent of the papers from India in 38 high-impact journals in biological sciences had men as the corresponding/senior authors and only 14.3 had women, despite the higher representation of women in these fields.

For the science-loving woman who fights her own sense of dutifulness to the family (real or imagined), the establishment often raises new obstacle courses. Only these obstacles are ones that the female scientist can’t talk about without raising suspicions that she’s too “sensitive” or feeling that it’s her own fault.

In the IAS-NIAS study, the researchers did something interesting. They asked both men and women in science what support they thought women scientists needed to stay in the game. The answers exhibited fascinating differences: “While a majority of WIR and MIR have reported flexibility in timings as an important provision, a larger percentage of responses by MIR indicated the need for refresher courses, fellowships, awareness and sensitization campaigns to retain women in Science. In contrast, women perceive provisions such as accommodation and transportation as provisions that would help them balance their career and family.”

Theoretical physicist Shobhana Narasimhan. Photo courtesy Shobhana Narasimhan

The researchers also pointed out that “family and societal pressures cannot explain completely why women drop out of Science”, cautioning against an overemphasis on women’s family roles. It pointed out that other organizational factors and infrastructure in the workplace also had a significant impact on whether women stayed on.

Hostile or unsafe work environments are a deterrent to women pursuing science careers. Whether it’s within an institution or out in the field, women are often reluctant to talk about the harassment they face because their concerns can often be dismissed by male colleagues.

Rajaram Nityananda, a senior physicist who has worked at several scientific research institutions across the country in the course of his career. He served as the Centre Director of the National Center for Radio Astrophysics in Pune, and is currently at the Azim Premji University, Bangalore. He says he had to deal with a couple of cases of sexual harassment. "In one instance, a complaint was lodged about the doctor of an institute who was reported to have been making his female patients from the institute uncomfortable, by touching them unnecessarily. Once the case came up, more women began to speak up to the women's cell about their experiences with the doctor. In that particular instance, the doctor’s contract was terminated. “  

“In another instance, a woman student doing a project with a senior academic accused him of inappropriate behaviour. This person had developed a reputation for making his women students uncomfortable, many years earlier. The institute did take some immediate formal action based on the investigation and report of its Women’s Cell, and the student was given an alternative project and guide. However, it appears that this incident did not have any consequences for later decisions, which were examined purely based on the academic record. It appears that the prevailing attitude at the highest level was one of letting sleeping dogs lie.”

Shobhana Narasimhan, a theoretical physicist at JNCASR in Bangalore, says that when men tend to go for drinks after work, they are also creating informal but very significant spaces to network and share valuable information. “How to apply for grants, which journals to approach, which institutions to apply to – these are things that are otherwise hard to learn; no one teaches you these things. Women are typically excluded from these circles.”

Nandini Rajamani Robin, a wildlife biologist with IndiaBioscience, the non-profit that organized the Wikithon on women scientists, also identifies networking as being a major hindrance to career progression for women. “Appearing at conferences, which is one way to network, requires time and travel, and women with families aren’t always able to participate in this.” Another factor she points to is a sense of discomfort with self-promotion. “Networking also involves consciously putting yourself out there and talking about your work, which is something women have to learn to be comfortable doing.”

Listening to pioneering women scientists talk of their incredible achievements can be greatly invigorating but also disorienting. Some can believe that they controlled their lives and careers, and are hesitant when it comes to questions about gender. A common tendency is to casually intersperse their sincere arguments that women just need to work hard instead of feeling like victims, with the stories of the shocking discrimination they faced.

Nandini Nagarajan was the first woman in her class, has four siblings who studied science (one of whom is Rajaram Nityananda), and her father was a mathematician. She sharply zeroes in on the “relocations” which disrupted her career, but when she talks about how she started in geophysics at IIT Kharagpur, she says, “The admissions committee was gender-blind.” Then, she says, “The teachers sat me down and asked me to consider going back to the physics department because there was fieldwork involved in the geophysics department, which they said would be hard for a woman. They neither coddled nor tried to marginalise me. After me there was someone who did her fieldwork in Bastar! For six months! Those were the good days. But it’s important to note that I was not a unique case. Just isolated because women were rare in some fields then. In that era, every discipline probably had a lone woman.”

A little later, Nagarajan points out that Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, the institute next door to the NGRI, where she worked, got its first woman director in 60 years. The new director’s in good company. Fabiola Gianotti, the first woman director-general of CERN in the sixty-year existence of the particle physics lab was quoted as saying that she does not believe there is any intellectual discrimination against women in science. In the same profile where she was praised for her calm and ability to smile during stressful situations.

The feisty Anna Mani ragged Abha Sur, author of Dispersed Radiance, soon after meeting her, “What is this hoopla about women and science? It must be getting difficult for women to do science these days. We had no such problems in our time.” Sur wrote, “Yet, as I asked Anna Mani about the social environment and the support of her peers, a deep-seated hurt and anger surfaced. ‘He was an odious man’, she said, referring to a colleague who had done his best to make the women feel inept, both as scientists and as women. Any slight error the women made in handling instrumentation or in setting up an experiment was immediately broadcast by some men as a sign of female incompetence.” After she finished her PhD dissertation, Anna Mani was disqualified on a technicality and was never awarded her doctorate.

Silver linings and jasmine strings

One significant, positive factor is that women in India don’t have to go through in their science careers, unlike their counterparts abroad, is negotiating equal pay. “I once travelled to a conference in the US where I heard a group of scientists say Indians were so progressive because they paid men and women the same amount!” says Shobhana Narasimhan. In the US, she points out, scientists in research often have to negotiate pay with their institutions – and this is where women tend to lose out, and are often paid less. In the UK and Europe, Anusha Mujumdar tells me, women postdocs are paid less than their male colleagues, even if they have more experience and are better qualified.

This is something other women scientists experience when they leave India. Shakti Lamba is a 32-year-old evolutionary biologist and anthropologist at the University of Exeter. Her research is looking for insights into human behaviour, including some recent fascinating work on self-deception. “In particular, I study how people solve cooperative dilemmas. I work with the Pahari Korwa, a small-scale, forager-horticulturist society in Chhattisgarh and with the Khasi of Meghalaya. The coolest thing about my work is that I get to work in places I’d never have gone to otherwise. In Chhattisgarh, I work with people who are hunter-gatherers, they use bows and arrows, they live without electricity and running water – just experiencing life like that was amazing. Lots of adventures, falling sick, getting stuck out in the middle of the forest, all sorts of stuff. That was more a cultural shock, I think, than coming to the UK!" She reiterates the gender pay gap problem in the UK. "There are differences between what men and women are paid in academia, and women are paid significantly less, on average. This arises because there is negotiation of pay within a range, and women for whatever reason are less likely to be given, or to negotiate, higher salaries."

Janaki Ammal, early Indian botanist. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia

The other positive factor comes via Mujumdar. She says she feels more comfortable expressing her identity as a female scientist in India than she does in the UK. When I asked her if she’d seen the photographs of the women scientists at ISRO hugging each other over Mangalyaan’s success, she exclaimed, “That’s so cool!” On a Facebook page dedicated to space science that she visits, she saw a discussion on the photograph. While some commented on how progressive India seemed, having women scientists working in a space mission, others remarked that the women seemed comfortable with their femininity. In the photograph, the women are dressed as if for a special occasion, in silk sarees, one even with a long cluster of jasmine trailing down her back. “The biggest difference I see working in Europe and in India, is that women in science can still be themselves to a large degree. In India, it didn’t matter how I dressed, but in Europe, women in science tend to dress more severely in shirts and trousers, and they model themselves on their male colleagues. I like to be flexible in the way that I dress – sometimes it's trousers, or a kurta, or a dress – but dressing more feminine means that perhaps I am instantly stereotyped.

Nandini Nagarajan sent me two emails with pictures of herself; the second mail includes the line, "This is how women in earth science look?" The mail has a scanned photograph of five women, Nagarajan and her colleagues at the National Geological Research Institute, taken over two decades ago. Four of them are wearing sarees. Nagarajan stands far right in a cotton sari bordered in red, with her hair down and a bright red bindi on her forehead. "I sent you that one because it reminded me of the Mangalyaan scientists' picture. You can wear a silk saree and wear flowers in your hair and still be a scientist at ISRO."

Matt Taylor, a Rosetta scientist (part of a team that landed a space probe on a comet) with the European Space Agency, made a televised appearance wearing a shirt with sexy, barely-clad women firing guns, his tattoo sleeves on display. As one astronomer wrote of the huge #Shirtstorm that followed: “I don’t think Taylor is a raging misogynist or anything like that; I think he was just clueless about how his words might sound and his shirt might be interpreted. We all live in an atmosphere steeped in sexism, and we hardly notice it; a fish doesn’t notice the water in which it swims.” Not noticing is rarely an option for women.

Future Shockproof

The moment of falling in love with science comes at different stages for different people. Shakti Lamba says, " I was always interested in science at school but I was equally interested in other things. There was a point towards the end of my undergraduate degree in Zoology when I realised I wanted to do this as a career. I saw some interesting talks that grabbed my attention. I saw a talk years ago by a visiting student from IISc (I was a student at Delhi University at the time, at Hindu college) who gave a talk about cooperation in animal societies – bees, termites, wasps live in these big hives and nests and help each other in various ways – that captured my attention."

For more women to have that career-shaping moment in India, we need some very big steps. For students in rural India, the chance encounter with charismatic science such as the one Shakti Lamba has continues to be very low. Scientific institutions need efficient redressal for sexual harassment (according to the Vishaka guidelines) and managements that are aware of the sexist water in which the fish are swimming would make women scientists welcome in the workplace.

And when it comes levelling with the old boys club, there’s plenty to be done. “You have to ask, how do women feel in the workplace? Are they able to participate in scientific discussions in the way that their male colleagues do?” says Nityananda. Narasimhan says, “One reason why women don’t rise is that they’re hesitant to ask for things – for more lab space, for better tools, fixed working hours, lesser teaching loads, and more pay. I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do for working women scientists, and we’ve [the DST and COACh] been having these workshops where women are explicitly taught [the things that men are able to pick up while networking].” Two months ago, she organized a workshop for women in Bangalore, and last month, she was at one in Italy, with many more such workshops in the pipeline.

As in other realms, there’s the danger that issues of women in science will be seen as a ‘women’s issue’, Narasimhan points out. The DST’s Task Force report mentions in its introduction a conference that it once organized for a large number of participants on women in science. But there were only a handful of men in the audience, and they slipped away after the inaugural lecture. “Gender sensitization workshops should take place, but getting men to attend means making them mandatory, and there’s enormous resistance to that,” says Narasimhan. A PhD student who asked not to be named told me about how her otherwise supportive supervisor didn’t agree that women weren’t represented in enough in their field. “And then he said women made bad leaders, as they tended to panic under pressure. I said, if that’s true, might it be because the pressure on them is so much higher – women have so much more to prove, and so much more to lose? But I don’t think he saw my point.” And it’s unlikely he would, unless was forced by the workplace to examine his attitudes.

Scientific institutions around the world are learning to put their money where their mouth is. Meera Pillai, who works on gender issues, points out that there’s a growing recognition around the world of the need to include female subjects in scientific studies, which is changing granting policies and reporting requirements. In 2010, the Canadian Institute of Health Research introduced mandatory questions on sex and gender in grant applications, and the proportion of applicants responding positively to considering issues of sex and gender increased by 22 per cent in a single year. Granting agencies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, WHO, and the European Commission require gender sensitivity. And several journals, Pillai adds, including many of the most respected ones such as Nature and Lancet, now have editorial policies that require reporting of sex or gender specific issues in scientific research.

And while Indian women scientists work and battle for policies that will bring more women on board in the future, the past is not without its inspirations. IndiaBioScience will continue their yearlong Wikipedia edit-a-thon to raise the profile of Indian women in science.

And Godbole, who appears to have made raising awareness about women in science her mission, will keep on at it. “Why do I make it a point to talk about issues faced by women in science? I realize that not everyone notices the things that we face as women scientists, and it may seem new to some, so I make the effort to bring it up when I can. You just have to keep on talking about it. You have to bring it people's notice. Maybe if I keep saying it, it will register for people. Like Lewis Carroll says in Alice in Wonderland, 'I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true'. Twenty years from now, I hope we will not be talking about women scientists. Except as scientists who happen to be women.”

Deepika Sarma is Assistant Editor, Grist Media.