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Glaring gender gap at top level in science

Calcutta, Jan. 4: The proportion of women in India opting for higher education in science and engineering has increased significantly in recent years, but gender disparity remains stark at senior levels of the science hierarchy, Union science minister Jaipal Reddy said today.

Reddy, inaugurating a women’s science congress dovetailed into the 100th meeting of the Indian Science Congress, said the proportion of women leading research projects in various academic institutions has increased from 13 per cent to 31 per cent over the past decade. But he said: “I would like to recognise the ground reality of women in science and technology. Women scientists form a mere 15 per cent of full-time research and development professionals in India.”

“While at the entry levels of research positions, gender parity is better, disparities become stark at the levels of senior scientific positions,” Reddy said, outlining initiatives by the Centre to encourage young women to continue pursuing careers in research.

The Union science and technology ministry has introduced initiatives designed to offer women flexibility in timings and mobility across scientific institutions, but sections of women researchers believe it is still too early for significant outcomes.

Research, Reddy said, is a demanding profession that calls for time and commitment. “Marriage and child-bearing and rearing are responsibilities that coincide with the most critical formative period of research careers,” he said. “The social handicaps that women scientists encounter should not be confused with their inherent intellectual potential.”

He said the attrition in representation at higher levels is “undoubtedly a result of the difficulty in pursuing a career that demands a greater investment of time”.

A senior scientist said that while there was some truth in this observation, there were signals that other factors may also be contributing to women dropping out of research careers.

“We have indications that there is a reluctance to adapt to the flexibility that women with family responsibilities would require,” said Rohini Godbole, a senior physicist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and a delegate at the science congress.

Godbole cited a survey of about 600 women with PhD degrees who had quit research, had taken up jobs not commensurate with their qualifications, were teaching in schools or employed by industry.

The survey examined perceptions of women in these groups and revealed what Godbole calls a “signal” indicating that some women had to quit because of this lack of adaptability to their needs. “There is hope that the initiatives by the science and technology department will change things over time,” she said.

The women’s science congress will showcase the contribution of women in science and technology through sessions during which researchers will present their work.

Reddy, during his talk, referred to the role that online social networking had played in mobilising the protests against the gang rape in Delhi last month.

“We are seeking how social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are empowering people to make their voices heard all over the world,” Reddy said.

“I welcome the positive impact of the use of social media... I think the women’s science congress may focus on the deployment of technological tools to protect the rights of women.”