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India’s women in science, and their struggle

In 2008, the Indian Academy of Sciences published Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India, a volume capturing the journeys of nearly 100 Indian women in science.

From botanist Janaki Ammal to India’s first woman physician Anandibai Joshi, from the chemist Asima Chatterjee to anthropologist Iravati Karve, from meteorologist Anna Mani to mathematician R Parimala, the essays covered the extraordinary spectrum of individual experiences of these women, and the complicated relationship between science and gender across the world, but especially in India.

Cut to 2023, to the publication of Lab Hopping: A Journey to Find India’s Women in Science, and the narrative has only shifted marginally, despite an increase in women’s participation in science over the past two decades.

Recent data from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) showed women made up 28% of participants in 2018-19 in extramural Research and Development (R&D) projects, up from 13% in 2000-01. The proportion of women primary investigators in R&D increased more than four times — from 232 in 2000-01 to 941 in 2016-17. The proportion of women researchers rose from 13.9% in 2015 to 18.7% in 2018.

But while the presence of scientists such as Dr N Kalaiselvi at the helm of prestigious research institutes such as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has helped foreground the contributions of Indian women in science, the dominant relationship status between women and science in higher academia remains as before: it’s complicated.

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In 2016, Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj launched the website thelifeofscience.com that would profile the stories of women and non-binary people in science in India. It would serve the dual purpose of throwing up role models for a younger generation and shedding light on the constraints that discourage diversity at India’s premier institutes and labs.

Lab Hopping is one of the outcomes of the project that details, through extensive interviews with stakeholders from across the country, the obstacles that hold women and non-binary people back. From institutional apathy to poor working conditions, from sexual harassment to carrying the twin burden of home and the workplace, from a lack of representation to deeply entrenched patriarchy (Nobel laureate CV Raman is known to have initially dismissed the research aspirations of Kam ala Sohonie, one of India’s first female chemists, on grounds of her gender), Dogra and Jayaraj note how over the decades, despite a purported intent of inclusivity, progress has been painstakingly slow.

For the women who have made it big, such as cell biologist Jyotsna Dhawan, daughter of aerospace pioneer Satish Dhawan, or V R Lalithambika, who headed India’s Gaganyaan project, the leitmotif that runs through their stories is a recognition of their privileges. Dhawan speaks of being encouraged to live a “life of ideas”, Lalithambika of turning constraints into opportunities.

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Most scientists, irrespective of their socio-economic background, speak of being lucky — in India, affluence does not necessarily translate into opportunities and the constraints on education and choice of careers range from conditionings of caste, class, religion, and overarching patriarchy.

Many have sacrificed family lives to pursue their dreams; many feel let down by the entrenched culture of gatekeeping.

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“There is a lot of rage documented in this book. The rage of those pushed away from the sacred hallways of Indian science and the rage of those who are fighting from within. This rage is our biggest strength,” write Dogra and Jayaraj.

© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

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