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Science in search of women
- Report shows low numbers in profession, glass ceiling

Bangalore, April 24: For Indian science, this will be a search without a parallel.

The Union government and science academies will scout for women scientists who will act as role models ' like Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin ' to younger women keen to pursue careers in science.

The government and academies believe that the portrayal of success stories will help reverse the trend of women branching off to other fields or abruptly calling off their scientific pursuits.

There will be incentives, too, in the form of fellowships and support systems at workplaces to project science as an attractive career for women.

The thinking to encourage more women to take up science was prompted by a report of the Indian National Science Academy (Insa). The report threw up several disturbing facts. The study points out the limited access of women in science-related careers as well as the 'glass ceiling' in their profession.

The report shows that there has been a marked increase in women preferring commerce and arts to science in universities. Most women who qualify to study science either take up teaching jobs or faculty positions in institutions.

In most IITs, the number of female students is less than 10 per cent of the total, agriculture and technical universities have less than 20 per cent.

None of the 42 laboratories of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is headed by a woman. The same is true for the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

The departments of science and technology and biotechnology and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) each have one facility headed by a woman. None of the secretaries of departments dealing with research and development are held by women. The posts of director-general of CSIR and president of Insa have always been held by men.

'We need a group of role models who will double up as counsellors as well. Science is very demanding and only women living on campuses can survive (the competition),' Vinitha Sharma, the director of science and society in the department of science and technology, New Delhi, said.

'The societal pressures and those within the institution mount just as a woman's careers takes off (at the post-doctorate level). So, renowned scientists can talk to youngsters on how to manage a career and family. Women should be offered flexi-time and the option to return to Science with three-five year breaks,' Sharma said.

According to Professor Rohini Godbole at the Centre for High Energy Physics in Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science, the Insa will shortly invite women fellows of the academy to talk on science as a career for women. 'We plan to distribute literature on renowned, yet unsung women scientists'. I think the R&D organisations must allow young couples to work and live on the same campus.'

'In most cases, women are forced to quit and move on because the husbands are employed elsewhere,' Godbole, a member of the INA team that put together the report on 'Science Career for Indian Women,' said.

So far, only eight women have bagged the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize between 1958 and 2003. Most of them have won in medicine, but none in Physics, Engineering and Earth Science, Godbole said.

The Prime Minister's Science Advisory Council, headed by Professor C.N.R. Rao, is also planning changes in the administration in order to encourage more women to take up science. 'We are going to take up structural changes in many organisations to facilitate more women to work in them. In some of them, there have been no recruitments for the last 20 years. These are organisations with big budgets, but have administrative procedures that are archaic,' Rao said.

In October 2005, the issue of high attrition among women scientists will be also discussed at an international conference in Bangalore. 'We are going to ask for flexi-time options and accommodation on campus along with an increase in the number of fellowships for women,' Kaiser Jamil, the vice-president of Third World Organisation of Women Scientists, Trieste, Italy, said.

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