Men are better at mathematics; women prefer biology. Men are good at the physical sciences; women do best in the life sciences. How often have we heard this? And how many of us believe this? If you ask a man, he will quote statistics and hard data to prove the point. Ask a woman, and she will speak of social factors that are the main determinants that steer women to make choices that are not really free choices. For men that is just an excuse. For women, the argument of biological determinism sounds extremely strange in the 21st Century.
Controversy in Harvard
This subject has been revisited because of a remark by Mr. Lawrence Summers, President of the prestigious Harvard University in the United States. In a speech on January 14, Mr. Summers suggested that women professors in mathematics and physical sciences were rare because of their "innate ability". In other words, women just did not have the brains to handle what are generally considered the "hard" sciences. For good measure he added that family commitments and gender discrimination also played a role. But it is his reference to biology that made the news.
The INSA study
In India, no leading figure would resort to such political incorrectedness even if they secretly agree with Mr. Summers. In any case, most Indian women scientists know that even if men here do not make such remarks, the hurdles they have faced in progressing in a career in science speak volumes of the dominant mindset that prevails. Now their misgivings have been recorded and acknowledged not by a feminist journal but by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA). In a report released last year, INSA has looked at issues relating to women in science from educational opportunities to the feasibility of their following science-based careers. This is something Mr. Summers ought to read.
The study acknowledges that even though a substantial number of women study science, not many pursue a career in science. It states that "traditional mindsets, which visualise women as being child-bearers and home-makers, and men as breadwinners" play a role in women's progress in pursuing careers in science.
Can science be women-friendly?
The study is useful because it sets out the issue in the necessary perspective. In India, science education is highly valued and many women, when questioned, suggest that their parents never discouraged them from following a science-based education. In fact, to some extent, a science degree places a woman higher in the marriage market with doctors topping the list.
The SNDT survey found that girls who chose science did so out of their interest and love of the subject and not to become better qualified for the marriage market. Also, compared to other countries, the percentage of girl students pursuing science at the under-graduate and post-graduate level in India is quite impressive. Yet, when it comes to careers in science, the numbers suddenly drop. What are the reasons for this?
Apart from quantitative data, the SNDT study also conducted focus group discussions. It is in these discussions that women scientists spoke of the problems they faced. For instance, women in the Northeast spoke of a lack of mobility because of poor transport systems and an unsafe physical environment as a hindrance in their career paths. While this problem affects all women, it tends to have a greater impact on women in fields such as science where they need to be ready to stay back late in laboratories if they want to excel.
Sometimes, institutions had rules that directly or indirectly affected women's careers. For instance, some organisations do not allow a husband and wife to work in the same place. This means that usually it is the woman who has to give up her job. There are institutions that hesitate to admit girls because they believe that girls will have to discontinue once they get married. In interviews, women are always asked what assurance they can give that they will continue.
Women scientists also spoke of those hardy perennials sexual harassment and gender-related harassment. For instance, one woman scientist was quoted as saying, "If you dress well, they don't take you seriously. Older men are condescending. But if you challenge them, then they become hostile." Women scientists also felt "that men just cannot tolerate a woman in a higher position. Equality is not part of their attitude". This is evident if you look at the top positions in some of our government-run scientific institutions. Take the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which has 42 laboratories in different parts of the country. Yet not one of its directors is a woman. Is that a coincidence, or a pattern? Or is something wrong with all the women scientists who join CSIR? It is more than likely that the same pattern is repeated in other scientific institutions in India.
Given this reality, INSA does not recommend special treatment or quotas. It points out that the women interviewed just wanted facilities and policies that would give them a level playing field. Its recommendations are reasonable, asking for merit scholarships for girls, travel support for girls from poor families, opportunities for girls from small towns and for women science teachers who want to pursue research, a role model programme that encourages women scientists to travel and speak to students, and the facility for women, who have had to take a career break because of family responsibility, to pick up where they left of. Surely, none of these is an unreasonable demand in a country that supports both science and gender equity.