Why Indian women scientists drop out

The other day, there was an interesting article in the Hindu on the subject of why women scientists drop out.  The article quoted two research papers, which tried to analyze why there were so few women scientists at the highest levels.

The first is the one by Kanta Rani and Rajesh Luthra of CSIR’s human resources group. They have analysed the number of research grants in biology, given by CSIR during the period 2004-2008, and asked how many of these went to women.

Their paper shows that, surprisingly enough, men and women are equally successful (39 per cent success among men and 41 per cent among women) in winning grants from the CSIR (and likely from other agencies as well).

Okay, I don’t know why it should be surprising that men and women were equally successful in getting grants.  But moving past that, clearly whatever is hampering women scientists, it is neither ability nor funding.

(The paper did find that women in universities were more successful than those in R&D centres at getting funding, but doesn’t say if there is a similar trend among men, so I cannot conclude anything from that).

The second paper, “Beyond family and societal attitude to retain women in science,” by Drs. Anitha Kurup and R. Maithreyi of the  National Institute of Advanced Studies, surveyed 568 women scientists.  I am amazed (and somewhat appalled) not at their research but at the conclusions they chose to draw.

Consider this:

Most of these 568 were married (86 per cent of WIR, 88 per cent of WNR and 92 per cent of WNW). Yet a small number of women in research (14 per cent) preferred to remain single to keep their career on track (compare this with the 2.5 per cent of men in research, who were single). This suggests that a majority of women scientists are able to balance both their career and family responsibility.

So, er, one in seven women think they can only advance in their careers if they remain single, and that suggests that most women are able to balance career and family responsibility?  Really?  I would think rather that it shows the opposite – that women find that marriage (and children) affect their career so much that large numbers of them would rather stay single.   Clearly, it is not an issue of the women’s own commitment, obviously some of them are so committed that they prefer to remain single rather than damage their careers.  Given the social stigma that single women still face in India,  this is quite a sacrifice.  Clearly, there is something institutional going on here that the women are not able to tackle.

Pic courtesy: The Hindu

Pic courtesy: The Hindu

Here is more:

Another fact emerged. Although nuclear family and lack of childcare facilities may have affected WNW from continuing in science, they reported difficulties in finding jobs, institutions or advisors. This difficulty was more with the WNW group than with WIR or WNR.

So, it’s not just lack of childcare facilities, but there is outright discrimination against women that makes finding jobs or even advisors “difficult”.  The study doesn’t probe into why this is the case, and whether men with similar qualifications face the same difficulties.

So now what have we found – it’s not women’s ability or commitment, but opportunities available to them that make the difference.  You would think the study would talk about changing attitudes, right?

Wrong.  All that the study suggests, at the end of this, is that work timings should be made more flexible.

I am all in favor of flexible work timings, I am sure many men and women will find them helpful.  But aren’t we asking for too little here? Shouldn’t women scientists in India be more aggressive in demanding equal treatment ?  If a woman scientist cannot even find an advisor willing to take her on, or a job where she can prove herself, we have a very serious problem that merely changing office timings will not solve.

Neither is it just the lack of childcare facilities that are holding back women.  As far as I can see,  even the tip of the iceberg that these studies reveal shows that we need a whole new attitudinal change towards women scientists in India.  Why is nobody talking about this?

It’s when I read studies like these that I really wish we had class action lawsuits in India.


17 thoughts on “Why Indian women scientists drop out

  1. I totally concur with your observations. The gender inequality is so loathing. I find it difficult to believe the society we are living in is so backward. Why can’t men and woman, both take responsibility of raising kids? Why is it still an expectation for women? Allow them to aspire for success, and I’ll bet they would do better than expected!

    • Yes, and it’s not just in India. Even in the US where women are supposedly much more equal, raising children is still seen as mainly the mother’s job 😦

  2. Unfortunately, most people seem to still firmly believe that women belong at home!
    Or they think the other extreme, that no matter what, women must work long nights and weekends just like men, never mind that childcare still falls to the woman and people would lable you a “bad mum” just because your husband cooks dinner for the kids now and then!
    We really need people to just accept that gender roles are now becoming more and more diffused and that men wanting to be househusbands and women wanting a career are no issues to raise your eyebrows at!

    • Exactly. The attitude seems to be – if you want equality, you should also be willing to work 100 hour weeks like the men (never mind that those men are able to do it because their wives are picking up the slack.) But even if you do have a nanny and work 100 hour days, you will still be seen as an ambitious, aggressive career driven woman who is willing to abandon her baby for the sake of her career. You can never win.

      And isn’t it funny that women themselves buy into this? When you mention the husband cooking dinner, it’s ironic that so many times, the person who finds this most objectionable is the mother in law, who would rather that her son not be put to any trouble.

  3. Having worked in a large organisation in India, where R&D was a major chunk of the activities, let me suggest another possibility as to why women scientists have not made it up to the topmost echelons- the inability to play politics and crack the ‘good ol’ boys club’.
    It’s not just the family or lack of it that contributes, though those are ever-present factors. To make it to the top, one has to have to develop the ability to ride to success on others’ labcoat lapels and ruthlessly lie her way to the top, just as any politician (in politics) does. Flamboyance and arrogant flaunting of accomplishments is a must.
    Unfortunately, women are a little impaired in that respect.

    • That’s so true. I still remember wanting to go into research in India during high school and being advised by a Director in a Regional Research Lab never to consider it – he too made all the points you did – the politics and how long it takes to have your work recognized and how as a woman I’d have it worse..

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  5. I too found their conclusions from the 1-in-7 staying single perplexing. Commonsense and an observation of Indian society would show that in general, 1 out of 7 Indian women do not choose to stay single, given the pressure to get married, and early. So, if 1 out of 7 female scientists chooses to stay single, that clearly indicates the incompatibility they see between a scientific career and a family – and the question one should be asking is – how long will scientific institutions in India keep framing policies and refrain from changing an environment that is built on the premise that the scientist is male and supported by a wife who takes care of everything at home?

    • I’m guessing it will happen when Indian research Institutions start taking serious steps to address the question of why we have so few papers published in reputed journals / presented in international conferences despite spending millions in taxpayer money. They might then realize that they are turning away a lot of talent with their bureaucracy/ workplace atmosphere and so on.

      But I am not holding my breath on when all this will happen.

  6. Prolonged facepalming at the article’s suggestion of flexible working hours.

    I suppose one could elevate the level of scientific research by improving the service at the lab cafeteria?

    • I’m sure that suggestion will be made 😀 I’ve heard of men at some of our premier research places taking naps in the cafeteria after a sumptuous subsidized lunch. No doubt they would like, for instance, more comfortable chairs and so on !

  7. Very true, and of particular interest to me since my daughter is embarking upon this path. It is a very woman-unfriendly world out there for scientists, and I worry a lot about how she will manage. Obviously, I will do all I can from my end!

  8. Very well written piece, only if it will reach some of the policy makers I don’t know. I have returned to India after spending many years in Europe for finishing PhD and Post doctoral research and am wondering where I will fit in Indian science. The problem of women being in science is also there and very few women professor could be found, but as an Indian I was extremely happy for the attitude of people towards me, the quality of child care facilities (although expensive I must say), the government policies of extra holidays for parents of very young kids, and the institutional relaxation for parents (including fathers) to work from home and the attitude of employers to employ a young single mother even after seeing a break in her CV (might be not that general attitude but is observable) and finally permanent, flexible, part time all kinds of positions available for women/men to do science if they want. And if they don’t find the bench work exciting then there are ample of science writing and industrial works available to fall upon actually both for men and women. Now women still are rare in full professor position as the three dimensional work demand in academics like bringing money and managing a group, teaching, work tours and research along with parenting and having a husband also in academics (again 3D job) or any high profile career to take care for makes women really burdened and worn out. And a prolonged effect of this complex lifestyle makes women vulnerable at one point and her confidence keep eroding, she feels extreme tired and guilt all the time, she keep worrying about welfare of her children and about negative comments on her work and finally she takes all the responsibility and leave and choose her family. Some keep working in low profile research staff position, less money, less publications and at one point remains not eligible for permanent academic positions. But it is more the choice women make, and government is trying their best to improve that, France and Scandinavia are showing very good response to those policies. In India people in general don’t care as there are enough available candidates all over. Where is a proper child care? Men in India are still only theoretically liberal and there is a long way where they will prefer to work from home and so on. Although domestic help is available in India but still it always comes to the mother when child gets sick or any other crises arises. And those flexible women scientists jobs are with no further assurance for getting a permanent position.

    • Thanks for the detailed comment. You make some great points on the differences between Europe and India in terms of the research climate for women (and clearly, with your experience, this is a subject you can throw a lot of light on).

      Have you found any difference in attitudes in the elite Indian Institutions (IIT/ IISc etc) – are they more progressive in their attitudes? In relation to your comment on people not caring because there are many available candidates, do you find that your having studied abroad makes any difference? While I agree that for every position in India, there would be hundreds or even thousands of applicants, my own experience has been that really good candidates are few. The question is whether Institutions, including research institutions, make a push to get the most qualified candidates even if they need to make some adjustments, or whether they are satisfied with average candidates, preferably male, for whom they don’t need to go the extra mile.

  9. This article reminded me of something interesting but it maybe inflammatory considering the main theme of the blog and its (credit goes to the writer) avid supporters. So I apologize, in advance, for any misunderstandings and let me clarify that I respect women…

    As a guy, I am, like many other guys, totally rooting for sharing equal responsibility in a marriage. Having said that, I work in a field that’s perceived as predominantly male due to a large majority of men working in it. I encounter so much “positive discrimination” in the field (i.e. women who function more efficiently and with less aggression with my female colleagues than with myself and my male colleagues), it appalls me.

    Sure; I have to agree with you that sadly, women in large parts of India may still need to have their own feminist movement to make sure the playing field is leveled and I dare say that recent results of high school and college entrance exams have shown to a large part of educated India that it is a sin to not allow the same amount of opportunity to be given to a woman as it is provided for a man. That mindset needs some serious work and our current generation needs to put an end to it once and for all.

    However, in a country like the US, I think things have their own weird twist. Here, a woman who excels is glorified and is thought of as a “success of the society that needs showcasing” while a man who excels in the same manner is expected to (I am not complaining, but merely stating my own little observation and experience).

    I confess that I am a little old-fashioned (open-door-and-pull-the-chair-for-the-woman type) in personal life; but at the same time, I also think that true “equality opportunity” in a professional environment demands that “women are special men are not” attitude not be fostered at all. For example: There are reservation quotas for women in India, why? I don’t know. All I want to say is that if the goal is true equality, that’s not how it needs to be done. Not for women, not for socially/economically backward classes, not for anyone. As long as that “reservation” mentality prevails, the society will assume women need a head-start. Well, they don’t. They are as smart, as capable and as effective as their male peers. This has been proven enough number of times that at this point it is absurd to assume otherwise.

    Final comment: Women and men are different and everyone needs to accept that and married parents need to share equal responsibility when it comes to children and be allowed to work their own solution on to how to take care of their kids. So, I also don’t think we should sit in our high chairs and discuss how parents should distribute their workload regarding their kids. Surely, men are not out to make womenfolk’s lives miserable.

    A possible solution: Penalize every action that makes a distinction when it should not be made. (This, however, goes both ways). No “Best Female Scientist” or “Best Male Engineer” awards. Just “Best Scientist” or “Best Engineer” and then, may the best person win.

    Reference: Check this publication in wsj out for some detail/discussion/debate on a recent women’s reservation bill http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126837982277360685.html

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