Smart Women Pursuing Smart Science

A couple of years ago, India celebrated the success of its first Mars mission and I was very excited to see the smiling faces of the women staff of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) being splashed all over the media. It was a watershed moment as far as the Indian Space Program is concerned. But, more importantly, it shattered stereotypes about space research and Indian women. These are boom times for Indian science. In the last few years, science and technology, as a sector, has been receiving a lot of national spending with a lot of new universities and institutes that promotes science education and research coming up in the near future in India.

One aspect of scientific development in India that comes across as a pleasant surprise is the active participation and representation of women in the field of science and technology. If former Indian president Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was known as the ‘Missile Man’ of India, we have Tessy Thomas who is known as the ‘Missile Woman’ of India. She is the first woman scientist to head a missile project in India. Likewise, we have many more encouraging examples where women have broken the glass ceiling and made a mark in their respective fields. Today, 8 of the Top 10 Banks in India are headed by women and 12% of India’s 5,100 pilots are women.

However, stepping into the male-dominated domain of Indian science is not easy for a woman researcher. Women in science continue to have an incredibly difficult time being treated fairly because of the unfair system and sexism. And I can say this by drawing examples from my own life experience. The mind-set of the society is that women are less capable of understanding science, although all evidence is to the contrary. I faced seemingly insurmountable road-blocks on my path to building Biocon into the enterprise it is today. Initially, I had credibility challenges where I couldn’t get banks to fund me; I couldn’t recruit people to work for a woman boss. I can credit my success to my education and upbringing that had helped instil a strong sense of self-belief and a never-say-die spirit in me.

In India, women face discrimination when it comes to scientific institutions and science education. A new study by UNESCO outlining the involvement of women in science has some stark figures for India. As per a report by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), 44% of bachelor students are female while 41% get till the doctoral level. The report further states that women researchers show a tendency to work in the academic and government sectors while men dominate the private research sector, which offers better salaries and opportunities for advancement. Moreover, as per a latest report by the World Economic Forum, only 14.3% of science researchers in India are women. The proportion is worse than that in several West Asian countries like Bahrain, where women account for 41.3% of researchers in science.

The Road Ahead

India is aggressively working towards establishing itself as a leader in industrialisation and technological development. The Government of India, through the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy-2013, among other things, aspires to position India among the world’s top five scientific powers. If India has to realise this dream, women have to take a central stage. They need to capitalize on their inherent qualities of compassion, sensitivity, multi-tasking and above all, the inner strength to excel. Coupled with their hard work and perseverance, women can achieve anything they set their minds on.

– Kiran Mazumdar – Shaw

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