India’s top science awards heavily gender skewed

Most awardees’ lists reflect very poorly on women scientists in India. The gender malady runs much deeper though, say Kumardeep Chaudhary* and Sandeep Kumar Dhanda**.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.14 Published online 11 February 2019

© S. Priyadarshini

The meagre representation of women in the world's most coveted science award – the Nobel Prize – has long been a subject of concern. A recent study pointed out that only in two years of the history of the Nobel Prize – 2009 and 2018 – more than one woman was awarded in science disciplines1, with women representing a mere 3 per cent of awardees in the award's science categories2. The Nobel Foundation cited a larger bias against women and their low numbers in scientific careers in the recent decades as probable reasons for this poor show at the awards3.

The problem of gender inequality in scientific excellence is globally acknowledged4, and a comprehensive analysis of the corresponding Indian scene, therefore, does not throw up any surprises. In recent years, some government schemes in the country have tried to create women-specific awards to recognise the contribution of meritorious women scientists. However, the mainstream awards continue to see them underrepresented. A look at the awardees’ list of seven prestigious science awards of India – Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award (SSB), National Bioscience Award for Career Development (NBACD), NASI-Reliance Award, Infosys Award, Ranbaxy Sun Pharma Award, BM Birla Award and GD Birla Award – reveal this striking gender disparity.

The overall percentage of women in these prestigious science awards in India range from zero to 25 for individual awards and less than seven per cent collectively for the 183 times these awards have been conferred over the years. Among various fields, medical sciences have comparatively larger presence of female awardees.

Uneasy slant

These top awards to recognise scientific excellence in India have been instituted during the last 60 years, in seven of which no woman was awarded (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Distribution of female and male awardees in the last three decades for seven top science awards in India.

© Chaudhary, K. & Dhanda, S. K.

The oldest – Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) Award (instituted in 1958 by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) – has had women awardees in just 14 out of 61 years. 1961 and 2010 marked maximum female representation at 25 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively. In its six decades of awarding researchers in seven categories (Figure 2), the SSB awards was given to only 17 women out of the 548 awardees, accounting for a 3 per cent representation. Most (5 per cent) of these women were awarded in medical sciences while those in physical sciences were minuscule (1.7 per cent).

The National Bioscience Award for Career Development (NBACD) given by India’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in basic and applied biosciences was instituted in 1999 and no woman was awarded in 6 years till 2015. Female representation peaked in 2003 and 2004 at about 28 per cent.

The NASI-Reliance Award jointly instituted by National Academy of Sciences, India (NASI) and the private Reliance group in 2006 in the field of biological and physical sciences saw women recipients in only four years till 2017. No woman has ever been chosen for the award’s physical science category while in the biological sciences, their contribution was about 20 per cent.

Figure 2. Distribution of female and male awardees across major disciplines for seven top science awards in India.

© Chaudhary, K. & Dhanda, S. K.

In the 11 years of the Infosys Awards (2008-2018), women were not among the awardees for 4 years. 2013 represented the maximum contribution of women at 42.8 per cent. Supported by the Infosys Science Foundation (ISF), these awards are also given for research in humanities and social sciences besides engineering, computer sciences, life sciences, mathematical sciences and physical sciences.

The Ranbaxy Sun Pharma Awards (initiated in 1985 by Ranbaxy), that honour Indian scientists working in India or abroad in pharmaceutical and medical sciences, has had nine women awardees out of a total of 155. Except in 2004, not more than one woman has been awarded. Even more surprisingly, the pharmaceutical sciences category has seen no female awardee till now.

The BM Birla awards supported by B. M. Birla Science Centre, Hyderabad, were kicked off in 1990 in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Twenty-five years and 102 awards later, women had made it to their lists only 5 times. The maximum share of women awardees (50%) was seen recently in 2014. Again, among the 22 awardees in mathematics, there were no women. Though the gender disparity has been pronounced in these awards, a good sign is that the relative number of female awardees has increased in the last decade as compared to the previous two decades (Figure 1).

No woman’s land

Though women contribute stupendously across different segments of scientific progress in India, some awards and top positions have eluded them. India’s highest civilian award Bharat Ratna, for instance, has been given to three scientists till date, none of them women. The GD Birla Award for scientific excellence founded in 1991 by the K. K. Birla Foundation has had 26 winners – again, none of them women.

Top positions at funding agencies – the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)5 or the Department of Science and Technology6 – have never gone to a woman. By that token, the Department of Biotechnology has fared better by appointing two women as its secretaries during various times7. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has also had only two women heads in its 100 years of history8.

Less than 9% (90 out of 1,088) of the fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences are women9.

Balancing out the tilt

According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2017-18, an estimated 36.6 million (17.4 million female & 19.2 million male) students were enrolled for higher education in India. Girls constitute around 48 per cent of the total enrolment. In 2017, 34,400 students received PhD degrees, 20,179 of them males (59 per cent) and 14,221 females (41 per cent). These numbers point to a fairly balanced representation of women till higher education. The real challenge seems to be an unsupportive system that cripples their achievements beyond this level.

A few government schemes have begun offering incentives to women researchers on maternity leave or by providing age relaxation in research positions or a gap year to accommodate women's personal requirements. Funding agency Wellcome Trust DBT India Alliance provides a one-year full cost extension to fellows on maternity leave10.

However, these isolated efforts may not be able to trigger a big change. For starters, women scientists should be invited to all scientific committees, and based on their expertise, appointed to chair them. In times of globalisation, more and more scientists in India now have an international experience, and women are an integral part of this exchange process. In order to make the country’s scientific ecosystem equivocal, the representation and participation of women in public and scientific domains should now become a national priority. The issue is also of critical importance to India’s research and development (R&D) and innovation agenda.

[*Kumardeep Chaudhary is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Genetics & Genomic Sciences, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, USA. **Sandeep Kumar Dhanda is a bioinformatics postdoc in the Division of Vaccine Discovery, La Jolla Institute for Immunology, La Jolla, California, USA. The views expressed by the authors are personal.]


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