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Lack of Family, Institutional Support Continues to Beleaguer Women in Science

Lack of Family, Institutional Support Continues to Beleaguer Women in Science

women in STEM, women in science, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, female role models, leaky pipeline, childbearing, boys' club, manel, STI policy, gender-based discrimination, gender bias,

Representative photo: Trust Katsande/Unsplash


  • While India’s women’s work-force participation has been decreasing overall, there are also more women in science today than there were before.
  • But within the scientific workforce, women are still often expected to fulfill gendered societal expectations, especially of being caregivers. This puts paid to a healthy balance.
  • Two researchers interviewed 130 women scientists of various institutes, fields and ages from 2016 to 2018, including supporting partners and childcare support.
  • Women scientists are slowly shifting the “nature of gender relations”: some become ‘superwomen’, others actively challenge gender norms but yet others make personal compromises.

A lot has changed since Kamala Sohonie, the first Indian woman to do her PhD in science at a British university, was kept from joining the Indian Institute of Science because of her gender. From institutes posting about women’s empowerment to friends reminiscing about their role models, the chants of resilient women in science echo everywhere as women’s history month whooshed by in March.

But they remain echoes.

Source: https://doi.org/10.1177/09717218221075129

Around 40% of those in undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD programmes are women. However, many of them don’t go on to become members of institute faculties. Science institutions remain hierarchical and patriarchal for the most part, discouraging women from enrolling or staying there.

A recent study explored the support systems that women scientists need to balance their professional and personal lives. Anitha Kurup, head of the Education for the Gifted and Talented Program, and Anjali Raj, consultant in the women in STEM project, both at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru, interviewed 130 women scientists to understand changes in the responsibilities of women in STEM 1 in India.

Also read: The Implicit and Explicit Biases That Follow Women From School to the Lab

Lack of support

While India’s women’s work-force participation has been decreasing overall, there are also more women in science today than there were before. But within the scientific workforce, women are still often expected to fulfill gendered societal expectations, especially of being caregivers. This puts paid to a healthy balance.

“The general belief is that things are changing – especially for women in metropolitan cities. That’s not true,” Kurup told The Wire Science. “I know several women who struggle to negotiate a proper work-life balance. We showcased the reality of women researchers in the study.”

“We want women scientists to have fulfilling careers and happy personal lives,” Raj said of the study’s purpose, “with academic institutions supporting them to achieve that.”

For their study, Kurup and Raj interviewed 130 women scientists of various institutes, fields and ages from 2016 to 2018, including about their strategies to maintain work-life balance on three fronts: supporting partners, childcare support and support for/of extended families.

The authors presented their findings as personal narratives instead of as data. “Numbers cannot capture what we observe. The dynamic responses from the women from different caste, class, religious and rural/urban backgrounds cannot be fit into neat boxes,” the authors wrote.

They found that women scientists are slowly shifting the “nature of gender relations both at home and at institutional space” through personal negotiations. Some assumed the ‘superwomen’ role and others actively challenged gender norms – but yet others made personal compromises to achieve their professional goals.

A 2010 report Kurup coauthored, entitled ‘Trained Scientific Women Power: How Much Are We Losing and Why?’, is considered to be a pioneering effort that influenced policies for women in STEM as well as the creation of the All-India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) database.

It noted then that an important reason for women to drop out of science was the absence of familial support. This appears to be continuing to be the case.

“The problem exists because the onus of striking a work-life balance is dumped solely on women,” Reeteka Sud, a research coordinator at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience, Bengaluru, said. “If the solution is also dumped on women, we are not going to get very far.”

This should be the responsibility of science institutions, which, many women scientists have said, need to provide housing on campus, transportation, flexible timings and childcare and eldercare facilities for both men and women in science. Only then can women be free of their prescribed gender roles.

But the situation in most of these institutes is far from this ideal. For example, the Maternity Benefit Act 2017 mandates every establishment with 50 or more employees to have a crèche. But most science institutes don’t have this facility.

Without supportive facilities, women scientists – especially in institutes and universities in small towns – find professional growth harder because they also need to contend with academic check posts that have been designed keeping the more agile work-style of their male counterparts in mind: fixed working hours, research trips and quick workaround on weekends, etc.

For this reason, just “having a female director is not going to change that,” Vinita Gowda, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhopal, said. “We need to have women across the hierarchy in science. The lack of diversity in administration contributes to the male [perspective on] measuring women’s work.”

Also read: To Be a Woman in Science…

Marital status

All this said, Kurup and Raj’s study was undermined by one oddity. It acknowledged that a “work-life balance is not limited to married women but extends to include married men, unmarried men and unmarried women.” But of the 130 women scientists interviewed, only 16 were unmarried.

As things stand, the high workload in labs pushes researchers to focus on science first – often to the detriment of their personal commitments. Sud said that married women are particularly vulnerable to this and that this could have skewed the results. “But you face challenges as a woman in science, regardless of marital status,” she added.

Aashima Dogra, cofounder of The Life of Science, echoed her: “By limiting the concept of work-life balance to only married women, the study reinforces gender norms. It would have been more interesting to broaden the scope to men and unmarried women” as well.

The authors acknowledged the need to include unmarried women and men in the study. But due to time and funding constraints, they couldn’t do so, they said.

Kurup also reasoned that: “Most women in the STEM disciplines have a family and are/were married. The numbers in the study reflect the proportion of women in these disciplines in India.”

Nonetheless, Gowda also wished that “the category of ‘single parent with child’ was included. Our challenges are different from married women with family support.”

A second criticism is that the study did not address the causes of differences between the work-life balances of men and women. But the authors attributed these forces in their paper to the most fundamental one of them all – that India’s science institutes have been run by men, that they were designed “for men who had a wife that stayed at home”, and that they admitted women only very recently into their ranks.

The other causes, according to them, are superficial manifestations of this history.

C.M. Manasvi is a freelance science communicator. She has written for The Print and The Life of Science. She is currently an MSc plant systematics student at the University of Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology (TDU).


  1. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics

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