Why women scientists in India need affirmative action

Vineeta Bal

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.322 Published online 20 November 2008

Vineeta Bal

International women's day celebrated on 8th March is the conventional time to highlight problems faced by women. Until a few years ago, women scientists from India, a minority in their profession, got an annual mention in these fora alone.

However, over the past few years things seem to be changing for the better.

The background

In 2003, the Indian National Science Academy in New Delhi set up a committee to look at the status of women in science in India. At around the same time the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, also set up a panel on women in science with broadly similar objectives. Since 1999, Indian women physicists had started participating in international initiatives to bring their peers together. Much earlier than that, in 1973, the Indian Women Scientists Association (IWSA) was established in Mumbai.

Unfortunately, despite an early start and with a membership close to 2000 today, IWSA did not function as an effective pressure group to promote the cause of women in science. Poor employment and promotional opportunities in the context of social handicaps, high drop-out rates and poor visibility of scientifically trained woman-power have come up as serious concerns in the national context only in the 21st century.

As a major step forward, in December 2005 India's Ministry of Science and Technology constituted a task force on women in science. Its primary function was to suggest appropriate measures which would eventually help in bringing in gender equality, prevent loss of woman-power and encourage women to take up science as a career.

Urban Indian households and women in science

Indian women scientists are no different from their counterparts in most of the developed and developing world. In fact many problems faced by women scientists are shared by other Indian working women as well.

In such patriarchal societies, women are expected to perform a supportive, subordinate role to the man in the family

In such patriarchal societies, women are expected to perform a supportive, subordinate role to the man in the family with the prime responsibility of a nurturer and care-taker, and not as a wage-earner. A daughter may not be welcome in every family as reflected in the skewed 2001 sex-ratio of 906 females per 1000 males in the 0-6 years category in urban India1.

However, girl children from the urban middle classe are often encouraged to get educated and obtain a bachelor's or a master's degree. There were 39.4 per cent women amongst the students enrolled in the science stream in Indian universities in 20012. But higher education in science does not change societal perspectives. A science-educated mother may be an asset for looking after the children's studies, but she does not always have the freedom to take up a job to use the same skills! Even in families where a working woman's income supports a better lifestyle, her job is perceived as one which provides a useful secondary income. Nonetheless, the number of families which belong to urban, middle class India is steadily growing and it is mostly these families which provide the [wo]man-power in science and technology.

If the problems of all educated middle class working women are arising out of a common societal mindset, do women scientists need special attention at all? I believe they do, because of the requirements of the profession. Researchers in science and technology spend many hours reading and updating their knowledge on a regular basis in order to conceive, pursue and improvise on the research problems they address. Much more mental space and time are required for this to achieve respectable productivity. If women practitioners of science are constrained to a 9 to 5 job with limited or no opportunities for professional interactions because of a significant load of looking after the house, family and children, the probability is that they will not be as productive and successful as their men colleagues.

If women scientists and technologists, despite getting jobs, are not performing to their or their employers' satisfaction, who are the losers?

If women scientists and technologists, despite getting jobs, are not performing to their or their employers' satisfaction, who are the losers? Not simply the employer and the employee but society too, since these women constitute an expensively trained work-force. They have mostly been trained either in government-funded or government-aided educational institutions. A masters degree, more so a doctoral, in science and technology involves a lot of expenditure by the person concerned and directly or indirectly by the government. If this trained woman-power is either less productive or unutilised, it amounts to a major loss of national wealth.

What is needed?

As noted earlier, the proportion of girls and boys enrolling for a science degree are not very different in urban middle class India. This is in stark contrast to socially underprivileged sections which register very few female students in the school entry level. This number worsens at higher levels. A major loss of woman-power also takes place during doctoral and post-doctoral periods. Sketchy statistics available from a few prestigious institutions offering a PhD in biology in India show that nearly 50% of the student enrolment is of women. On an average the proportion of women faculty in these institutions is 25 per cent3 and the trend is similar in other areas of natural sciences.

Thus despite showing perseverance in completing the highest degree in science, few women manage to find a suitable professional employment opportunity. Things worsen at this stage in a woman's life because of child-bearing and child-rearing responsibilities. Thus the major problem that the Indian science establishment faces is not of training women as much as recruiting and retaining them in jobs. So, providing multiple measures to get past these concerns and creating systems to keep track of their implementation appears to be a major concrete option.

If couples are looking for jobs, a policy should be in place to encourage their employment in the same institution, or the same city. Potential employers of one spouse should take proactive steps in helping the other spouse find a job, thereby facilitating the woman's entry into the workforce. Provision of campus housing similarly improves the quality of life, and a preference should be given to women scientists for campus accommodation. Provision of good, clean crèches and day-care homes for elderly, preferably in close proximity of the workplace or home, is also a promising proactive step. Providing child-care allowance until the child reaches a certain age is another option. Extra efforts are needed to facilitate a congenial work environment by having frequent gender-sensitisation programmes for men and women. Sexual harassment is a significant but unrecognised problem which needs sensitive and prompt action. Providing security and a women-friendly workplace atmosphere should thus be a responsibility of the head of an institution and specific recommendations have to be in place for achieving it.

Working women need options to choose from

Some women simply quit science after a post-doctoral training because they don't manage to get employment after a break. This loss of trained woman-power needs to be minimised. Opportunities for refresher courses should be made available in different parts of the country, catering to local job needs. Training in new areas where primary science training will be an additional advantage, such as in law and patenting or science journalism, should be made available. Jobs which can be competently handled by part-time input from two employees should be specifically identified and offered to women as a measure of affirmative action. Some jobs are amenable to flexibility of working hours and/or working from home. Women should be given preference for such jobs. Paternity leave for fathers after childbirth has found very few takers in India, so increasing duration and flexibility of leave under a broad heading of 'child-care', which can be availed over a period of few years with every child born, might help in retaining women.

One has to remember that working women need many options to choose from. Making a wide range of choices available is the responsibility of planners and plan-implementers.

Who will benefit?

It would be beneficial to announce and implement measures to enable women's retention in science or their re-entry so that government-funded and -aided establishments benefit. Over the past decade, private science and technology establishments have grown in numbers with job opportunities in information technology, pharmaceutical companies, clinical research organisations and biotech companies. These are likely to expand further, recent global financial crisis notwithstanding. Retaining competent women in the job by providing enabling measures will benefit the private sector as well.

However, just announcing such measures may not suffice. It is necessary to put in place a monitoring authority which will collect data on implementation of promotional measures, analyse the impact every five years and suggest course corrections if necessary. Stopping the leaky pipeline and increasing numbers and proportions of trained women in science is likely to benefit society as a whole. It will not only benefit the economy but aid social progress as well, since a society where more women have financial independence is likely to move a bit further towards gender equality.

The author is a scientist at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi and a member of the Indian government's task force for women in science.


  1. Unicef child sex ratio document (2001)
  2. University development in India- basic facts and figures on institutions of higher education, students enrolment, teaching staff (1995-1996 to 2000-2001). UGC, Information and statistics bureau, New Delhi
  3. Bal, V. Women scientists in India: nowhere near the glass ceiling. Econ. Polit. Weekly 39, 3647 (2004)