Translations of the Pandemic: Women in STEM

The article presents a compilation of interviews of five women academics about the cause of women in STEM and the associated effects that are catapulted by the pandemic.

This article was selected for republication as a series on women scientists in Feminism in India.

Underrepresentation of women and under-recognition of their work in academia have remained as systemic issues in institutions. India, much like the rest of the world, experiences the ‘leaky pipeline’ in STEM. According to the 2008 National Task Force for Women in Science report, while 37% of PhD enrollments are from women, most of the prestigious institutes have less than 15% female faculty. Further, the percentage of women receiving fellowships and awards, from organizations like the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) barely reaches 5%. The  2018 records of Women in Science UNESCO reiterate that even though 43% of our STEM graduates are women, the workforce sees a meagre 14% involvement from women (UN Women).

These five scientists stand to open up conversations on the intersection between research and gender

Professor Rohini Godbole
Theoretical physicist and an Honorary Professor at The Centre for High Energy Physics, Indian Institute of Science. An avid supporter of women in STEM and a staunch science communicator, Professor Godbole has also co-authored and edited the book ‘Lilavati’s Daughters – The Women Scientists of India’.
Dr A Mani
A research scientist in algebra, logic, and rough sets at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and a senior member of the International Rough Set Society. She was with HBCSE, TIFR until recently, is also a prolific feminist, and an active lesbian.
Dr Manjari Jain
Associate Professor in the Dept. of Biological Sciences at IISER Mohali. Her research interests lie in acoustic communication in animals and she is the principal investigator of the Behavioural Ecology Lab, IISER Mohali.
Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya
Associate Professor in the Dept. of Biological Sciences at IISER Mohali. Her lab investigates immunology, mainly the immunobiology of host pathogen interaction.
Dr Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan
Assistant Professor in the Centre for Biosystems Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Science. Her area of research is quantitative cell biology. She’s also a co-founder of BiasWatchIndia, an initiative that documents gender-biased panels in Indian science conferences, meetings and talks.

Based on the data from BiasWatchIndia — an initiative to document gender-biased panels in Indian science conferences, meetings, etc., co-founded by Dr. Ananthanarayanan; the current aggregate of women faculty rests at a mere 10.9% in Indian scientific institutions.

The primary reason cited for this gender bias is women dropping out from institutional research at the stage of child-bearing. Dr Mukhopadhaya points out that there is an overall underrepresentation of women at later stages in their scientific career due to a general expectation of sacrifice from them to cater to the societal norms of motherhood and familial pressure.

“Women are forced to pursue only one of the two, creating a dichotomy between ‘careerists’ and ‘family-oriented people.”

Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya

Furthermore, due to age limits for applications, awards, and such, women are at a much higher risk to lose out on opportunities if they decide to stall their careers even by a couple of years. The clock of science also keeps ticking and measures to smoothen this loss of science become important.

There exists a social construct for a woman to be a caregiver first and all else second, which has no biological basis but comes with enormous consequences. Indeed, as pointed out by Dr Jain, working mothers suffer from guilt during their work periods when they are unable to tend to their children directly – especially considering how it is impossible to ignore a child’s need for attention. Dr Mukhopadhaya, however, points out that family duties should not be seen as responsibilities because the gains are just as much as the efforts invested. 

“The pandemic has been a situation akin to Isaac Asimov’s Unfought War.”

Professor Rohini Godbole

Did the pandemic effectively worsen this scenario? Professor Godbole says that the ‘W’ in ‘WFH’ (work-from-home) itself isn’t happening on a swing as doing science is dependent on and often flourished by live interactions. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of domestic help – a service whose importance is only realised in its absence. Since the division of labour in the household is already unequal, despite being home, time management has gone haywire affecting the flow of work. Being a young mother does not help either. Dr Mukhopadhaya notes that with her headspace being preoccupied due to lack of a clear distinction between work and family time, solely focussing on research is a tough hill to climb. To quote another example here, Professor Godbole notes that the timings of international conferences held virtually inadvertently clashed with parenting duties and hence participants, particularly women, expected sensitive support from the organizers. As Dr Ananthanarayanan points out, caregivers have had to carry out their responsibilities at the expense of their research because school and daycare closures mean that their young children have to be taken care of at home, whilst they are working on their research. Dr Jain feels that despite an effort to bring about changes in the social construct in the past decade, women are still viewed as the primary caregivers (a sentiment lacking any biological basis, as mentioned earlier). Putting forth an endearing example, she says-

“If cuckoo chicks can be raised by an entirely different species of bird, what stops men from contributing equally towards childcare?”

Dr Manjari Jain

Child-bearing might be exclusive to women, however, child rearing shouldn’t be.

The compromise on science itself is multifold. Labs being closed adds to a lack of motivation. Being the principal investigator of the Behavioural Ecology Lab, Dr Jain experienced the loss of a major field season. She has nevertheless managed to find the silver lining – being together with her family and the lab observing the graduation of its first PhD student amidst the pandemic. The general notion regarding non-experimental work would be that it should remain theoretically unaffected by social distancing measures in a pandemic but that is certainly not the case. Dr Mani, a mathematician working on algebra, logic, and rough sets, stated that the isolation due to the pandemic has affected health, routine, and general momentum of her research work. 

Image source: Shutterstock

Despite barriers, academia is adjusting to the “new normal”, a hackneyed but relevant term. Academics have found new ways of continuing research work. Whether it be by resorting to presentations or preparing scientific manuscripts and illustrations, they have re-prioritized their tasks and created new workflows to suit these strange circumstances. Dr Mukhopadhaya, for instance, extensively used virtual meetings to provide directions and connect the dots in her group’s projects. Dr Ananthanarayanan’s group undertook a refresher course on statistical methods for analysing biological experiments. The other evident challenge is of online teaching, where the limitations of online interactions make the endeavour more exhausting, thereby affecting the pace of academic work. Dr Mani, after teaching a course on ‘General Rough Sets for the Learning of Science’ at HBCSE TIFR, also taught a course on ‘Gender and STEM Praxis’ in early July, and she mentions that the students were enthusiastic despite the deficiencies.

It goes without saying that the cloud of gloom hangs especially heavy over early-career researchers given the lack of support and grants. In other words, rudimentary administrative support is causing extra stress in this regard. Dr Ananthanarayanan puts it very well –

“I’m afraid all the steps that have been taken in the past few years to achieve a semblance of equity may have been erased due to the pandemic.”

Dr Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan

We might go back to the situation that prevailed maybe a decade ago unless steps are taken now to ensure equity at several levels. As Dr Jain says, the administration should climb out of the ashes of old systems by being sensitive to challenges and tweaking around to ensure enough support is available to the disproportionately disadvantaged. Dr Ananthanarayanan added that the administrations should provide tenure-clock extensions to those who require it. Further, incorporating an opportunity quotient for assessments of faculties could help in a methodical upliftment of women in academia, considering the disproportionate share of social barriers they have to overcome. So institutes which assess academics for promotion need to make decisions based on achievements relative to opportunity, while providing a freedom to carry out research, as suggested by Dr Mukhopadhaya.

The solutions to all of the problems above are in no way straightforward. Amelioration of these problems requires gendered perspectives not only at the grassroots level in our day-to-day interactions but also at the level of apex bodies of our government and their policy legislations. Furthermore, it should be ensured that there is an adequate representation of women legislators themselves and that the legislation goes beyond the mere fulfilment of government-imposed gender representation quota. Professor Godbole believes the answer comes from within and that there is an urgent need for induced changes at the grassroots level, not mandated ones that result from being enticed by University ranking lists that use diversity indices. Policies should be more than just being politically correct. They have now become a part of the sheer pragmatism in the science industry; and the maturity of the science community to build up an intellectual space to discuss these challenges matters the most, she says. Indeed, the analogy of an inverted pyramid to represent this problem, as used by Dr Jain, shows that the status quo, if left unchecked, will collapse unto itself. Dr Jain further suggested the need for implementation of a mandatory-for-all gender sensitization course; including one on prevention of sexual harassment (POSH), for all members of the institute.

It is evident that the grassroots have to be addressed even outside the science community to the general masses as well. This role generally falls upon the science communicators or science media, who need to report and platform women in science to build the social psychology to accept women as scientists in principle positions. Their level of engagement matters as well, considering their role in reporting intersectional aspects of the gender praxis in STEM. Professor Godbole mentions that with young vocal women in STEM, she is hopeful about the future. She says that times are different now, and with women fighting for an equal share in the workforce, the scientific community needs to be mature enough to accommodate a change. She insists that women stay true to their aims, never apologizing for their ambitions.

Image source: Shutterstock

Dr Mani,  who is very vocal about gender sensitization and inclusivity, especially through her feminist research blogs, adds that

“ The existence of the gender-divide and lack of inclusion is due to factors that go beyond awareness. They are furthered and sustained by age-old mechanisms of systemic brainwashing.”

Dr A Mani

She mentions that it is crucial for women and LGBTQ+ researchers to understand feminist principles and their application in everyday life including academic scenarios. To this end, she suggests learning about potential issues by keeping track of dedicated fora like Feminism in India, The Life of Sciences (TLOS), and the like. Furthermore, multiple online fora also act as a haven for women academics. These spaces have highlighted burning issues while providing means to discuss solutions and calls for action. The interplay of politics into the scenario here in terms of dissolving propaganda within these fora and observing issues through a polarised lens, was a point of contention for some while others regard that such a correlation risks overgeneralization due to lack of concrete data. The aims of these fora should be profitable to science and satisfactory to their members, as said by Professor Godbole.

For women to not drop out during these uncertain times, it is equally necessary to ensure that the toll taken on their mental health is alleviated and things don’t go downside up. Fortunately, there are existing mechanisms in place such as the support of other women colleagues (especially for on-campus residents). This support is often crucial for young mothers. Dr Ananthanarayanan insists on identifying trusted mentors and friends to help through the process and asking for assistance as required. Dr Jain urges women to talk about issues without fearing consequences while Dr Mukhopadhaya emphasises the need for women to utilise their inner strength.

Times are unforeseen indeed, but these academics are still optimistic in that everyone is facing the challenges one day at a time and are taking steps in the right direction. Indeed, the pandemic should not lead to downright dampening of our spirits — it is all the more essential to recuperate and continue making gains, to ensure the country sees many more of Lilavati’s daughters realize their goals.

-Shreyas, Vinita & Achuthan

Achuthan, Shreyas and Vinita are students of the BS-MS program at IISER Mohali, from the 2017, 2018 and 2019 batches respectively. They are internal writers from Manthan’s editorial board.

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