Do women scientists in India still face discrimination?

DELHI -- In some states of India, more women than men are pursuing science courses in college. But MIT professor Abha Sur argues that Indian female scientists still face societal discrimination in fields of pure sciences. Not everyone agrees.
Written by Betwa Sharma, Correspondent

DELHI -- It's not every day that Indian women scientists and doctors gather in one room to discuss the need for female consciousness in their careers. Interestingly, these women hold differing views on whether their professions continue to be dominated by men and if they are discriminated against.

Manju Mohan, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, recalled that early in her career she encountered a male professor who refused to take female students because he was afraid that their dress would get caught in the laboratory equipment.

Suneeta Mittal, head of gynaecology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, countered that as far back as 1870 the missionary, Clara Swain, came from New York to India to set up a hospital, which still stands in Bareilly today. Some scientists recalled their surprise at not having American female classmates in their science departments when they went to study in the U.S. during the 1970s. Mittal argued that India (probably more than any other country) had offered women opportunities in medicine. Others, who distinguished between medicine and pure sciences, argued that a space for women doctors existed since many men refused to see women patients.

The recent debate in Delhi stemmed from the book, Dispersed Radiance by Abha Sur, a professor at MIT, who writes about the role of caste and gender in modern science. In one chapter, the author traces the journey of three women students who worked in the laboratory of C.V. Raman, India's Nobel laureate for physics, awarded in 1930.

The first women scientists emerge from the late 19th century to the early part of the 20th century in the backdrop of the nationalist movement and growing socialism. The author argues that during this time the upper-middle class begins educating their daughters to  make good wives and mothers, which is a logic endorsed by prominent social reformers of the time.

"How did nationalism, especially received nationalist ideology and its incumbent cultural norms, enable the entry and survival of women in science, and how did family structures and class position mediate careers in science for these women," she writes.

"The newness of scientific institutions in India protected women somewhat (at least in gaining entrance to science departments in the universities) from the historically entrenched gender bias if old universities and scientific societies in the West."

The three female students are Lalitha Doraiswamy, who would later marry Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics and professor at the University of Chicago. Lalitha, Raman's first female student who joined in 1936, did not pursue a science career after getting married and moving to the U.S. "The woman should be partly potential in her talent and not entirely kinetic is the best for married happiness," Chandrasekhar's father writes to him in a letter quoted in the book.

The author tells us about Sunanda Bai who joined the lab in 1939 but was not awarded a PhD. Before leaving for Sweden to study further, Sunanda committed suicide. Her death remains shrouded in mystery. Anna Mani, who came to the lab in 1940, also did not receive her doctorate degree. Anna Mani, who never married, eventually became the deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department.

Gender-neutrality of science

The atmosphere in Raman's lab is reconstructed through conversations between the author and Anna Mani from 1995. "The slightest error that women made in handling instrumentation or in setting up an experiment was immediately broadcast as a sign of their incompetence," reports the author.

Abha Sur

Sur explains that Anna Mani had a "healthy disdain for victim politics" and she did not want to dwell on the "loneliness and seclusion" that was forced upon women in the lab. Here the author questions the "gender neutrality of science," which is strictly adhered to by women who choose to overlook or become indifferent to discrimination. "The construction of science as a neutral body of knowledge and of scientific institutions as wedded solely to meritocracy precludes critical self reflection," she writes.

The account of the past led to discourse on the situation prevailing today especially as an increasing number of girls are signing up for science courses. The question, however, still remains how many of these women pursue careers in science or rise to the top of institutions. One simple observation is that both men and women are off-sciences in India since they do not lead to high-paying careers.

But if they are working in science then how do male colleagues and bosses behave today? How do dynamics within the laboratory play out? What about salaries? The gathered women scientists had different experiences and not everyone was convinced by Sur's arguments for de-masculinizing science.

The author also pointed  to a 1999 MIT study that  found systemic discrimination against women professors. "I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance," Charles M. Vest, President of MIT, wrote at the time.

If the sciences are still biased against women then the next question is how has masculinity in science transformed itself historically? Imrana Qadeer, a doctor and retired professor from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, also asked how science is impacted by gender discrimination.

The discussion probably raised more questions than it resolved. Scientists also reflected on several instances of women scientists (like Lalitha Chandrasekhar) choosing to sacrifice their own careers for their husband and  families.

Some may ask why dilute women's natural instinct to nurture. But Sur asked why men can't develop the same instinct as times change. "Biology is not static, innate and unchanging," she said.

Photos: Betwa Sharma

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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