Photo: The Wire
New Delhi: The chief scientist at the World Health Organization and the former Director General (DG) of the Indian Council of Medical Research Soumya Swaminathan spoke about her difficulties as a young woman researcher and said that she was often “talked down to”.
Speaking at the fourth Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, 2020, Swaminathan said that when she started her career at a government research institution, she “experienced the culture of a male-dominated committee room” and felt that she was “being talked down to or made fun of almost”, according to a report in The Hindu.
Dr Swaminathan said that she was “not taken seriously” and that her ideas would often be shot down. “I think that is the way many of our institutions function. They are very patriarchal,” she said at the conference which was organised online and serves as a rallying point for gender equity in health.
“And then you become diffident of expressing your opinion the next time. I was in my thirties,” Swaminathan said of her time at India’s top medical research body, ICMR, where she was a part of the Tuberculosis Research Centre in Chennai at first and later became the head of the institute in New Delhi.
Swaminathan also said that it was more difficult for women researchers to get grants approved and that women in developing countries faced hurdles in getting their results published in journals because of perceived biases. “I have faced those kinds of challenges and biases,” Dr Swaminathan said and added that even today women faced more difficulties while defending their grant proposals because they were treated differently from male scientists.
Swaminathan said that as director general of the ICMR, she adopted an inter-disciplinary approach and took into account perspectives from nurses as well as doctors and social workers and ensured that her staff was made aware of the concerns of the LGBTQI community.
After being the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) second highest official for a year and a half, India’s Soumya Swaminathan was appointed chief scientist at the WHO in March 2019. She was made the WHO’s deputy director general (DDG) in October 2017. before which she held the post of the head of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
Swaminathan was the first Indian and first Indian woman to hold the position of the WHO’s deputy director general.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has once again underscored the lack of equal representation of women in decision-making bodies at the national and global level. A recent study by the British Medical Journal said that while “women comprise 70% of the global health workforce, they hold only 25% of senior decision-making roles”.
The study also pointed out that only two or 14.3% members of India’s COVID-19 Task Force were women.