Book Title: Lab Hopping: A journey to find India’s women in science
Author: Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj
Dinesh C Sharma
THE achievements of state-funded research laboratories and national institutions, like the Indian Institutes of Technology or the Indian Space Research Organisation, are often a subject of celebration in media and government publicity platforms. We also hear about the scientists behind discoveries and advances. Occasionally, we see saree-clad women scientists celebrating a successful space mission in the control rooms of ISRO or about a ‘missile woman’. Recently, government agencies have released celebratory coffee-table books profiling women in science. Some women like Manju Sharma, Soumya Swaminathan, Renu Swarup and Nallathamby Kalaiselvi have reached the top of scientific departments. A few have become directors of institutes and vice-chancellors of universities. But this does not complete the picture.
In India, women and science have a complicated relationship. First, the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is very small. Second, they face patriarchy, bias, discrimination, harassment and institutional neglect at multiple levels. And it is not new. The most celebrated Indian scientist, CV Raman, enforced gender separation in his lab and did not allow Anna Mani to pursue her PhD under him. That was in the early 20th century. Biases continue in the 21st century as well. Even in top institutions like IITs and central universities, women face harassment in laboratories, living spaces and on campuses. These institutions still lack basic facilities like clean toilets for women.
Many studies have revealed the problem of high attrition rate of women in the academic pipeline — a good number of girls study science in school and college, but fewer take to higher studies, even less do research and the number tapers further when it comes to leadership positions. Based on interviews with dozens of researchers and scientists at all levels and across the spectrum of institutions, the book seeks to investigate the reasons behind this and presents a dismal record of Indian science.
The authors, Aashima and Nandita, started interviewing women scientists in 2016, literally hopping from one lab to another to write science stories based on the work of women scientists. In the process, they discovered that science in India was a men’s club — elitist, dominated by upper castes and had no room for diversity and gender equality. The book is a result of this investigation.
“Science, as it is today, is a man’s occupation. Dominated by men, scientific institutions are neither suited for nor proactive about accommodating any gender identities, except cis men,” the authors have concluded, based on the accounts of women they interviewed and their personal experience during field visits. Women scientists told the authors that explicit bias is voiced by men at many levels — in laboratories, scientific meetings, job interviews, fellowship and research grants, awards, science academies and so on. The biases persist despite ample evidence to show that women in science are not any less scientifically productive than their male colleagues.
While the government has launched some programmes to attract girls to science education to help women scientists return to research after a career break, there are serious problems in the implementation of such schemes. Moreover, the authors argue that such programmes, particularly for women scientists to return to work, are rooted in benevolent sexism. The recent discourse on the gender gap in scientific departments is a positive move but it is focused on the demands of motherhood and familial responsibilities. The government agencies and scientific leadership do not pay attention to systemic issues like sexism in labs, male-dominated scientific meetings, sexual harassment and women-phobic policies. Women scientists are heard only when they achieve something.
The gender gap can be narrowed only by interrogating the institutional frameworks that keep women and other marginalised groups out, and with a shift in the culture of science, the authors have concluded.
The book is well-researched and passionately written, but, at times, it becomes rhetorical and repetitive as it makes sweeping generalisations. For data, it relies on secondary sources and a handful of previously published studies. While this may be a gap, its strength lies in the testimonies and interviews of women scientists. Hopefully, it will lead to a new discourse and shake up the system to initiate corrective steps.