Society

Women Scientists In India Try New Experiments To Fight Sexism

Bright ideas to limit ways that motherhood so often leads to gender pay gaps and blocked careers for female scientists.

A Woman at Work in the Fertization Lab at Akanksha Hospital & Research Centre at Gujarat.
Sruti Ramesh

NEW DELHI — Maria Thaker, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru applied for tenure, but her application was turned down because she did not have as many publications to her name as a male counterpart. The all-male panel had conveniently forgotten to factor in the six months she took off on maternity leave and granted her a three-year extension rather than tenure.

All over India, women in science face similar biases as they navigate the patriarchal field of science. And these prejudices are reflected in the numbers: while women make up around 40% of the numbers at the undergraduate level in science, only 25-30% of the Ph.D. workforce is made up of women. And the situation only gets worse thereafter: only 15-20% of science faculty are women and the numbers dwindle as one goes higher up.

Indian women must navigate a male dominated field of science Photo: ISRO - Indian Space Research Organisation/Facebook

India is one of the largest players in science and research, currently publishing over 100,000 peer-reviewed articles in science and engineering in 2016, making it the third largest producer of scientific articles in the world. But the existence of gender biases and related issues preempts the creative, intellectual and scientific contribution of women, who make up 50% of society.

In Thaker's case, she enlisted the help of the chairs of biology at IISc and Sandhya Visweswariah, who heads the Indian Academy of Sciences Women in Science panel, to help fight her case. And this lobby resulted in an institute-wide policy change to take into account the time that a woman spends away from work during pregnancy and after childbirth while making tenure decisions.

The system in place at the institute now allows women to ‘stop the tenure clock" for one year per child, along with a maximum of a two-year extension. Visweswariah noted that male colleagues often fail to understand that it takes some time after childbirth for the body to return to normal.

Naturally, you tend to lag.

Women face a myriad of issues in the field, but the biggest reasons for the drop in numbers with PhDs and faculty positions seems to be explained by the fact that they come right around the "child-bearing age" for women and the perceived inability of women to manage a career and a life.

According to the Association of Academies and Societies of Science in Asia (AASSA) report, the proportion of women in science who never married (14%) was much greater than male scientists (2.5%), which along with the observation that more women have spouses within the field (40%) than men do (19%) hints at the existence of a work-life tradeoff in science for women.

"The crucial period after your PhD coincides with the period when some women decide to get married or have children. Naturally, you tend to lag. Unfortunately, we can't give up on that role of motherhood. But if we want to become scientists, we have to work twice as hard as men," Aruna Dhathathreyan, who retired as chief scientist from Central Leather Research Institute two years ago told LiveMint.

She also pointed out that taking a break from research can lead to a situation where your work becomes outdated, due to the fast-paced nature of the field. And women, who are often entrusted with the entire responsibility of a family, then find it difficult to stay relevant.

The Indian government offers fellowships to women between the ages of 27 and 57 years who took a break to help them return to and establish themselves in mainstream science research. These women scientists' programmes are an important step forward in bridging the gender gap in science and engineering. But the bigger step that needs to be taken is at the level of individual institutions and, more importantly, at the level of individuals, to educate people that it is not impossible to balance career and family and to encourage women to pursue fields like science and engineering.

Women scientists have started taking matters into their own hands, to provide necessary assistance to each other and make science a more level playing field. Across the country, they are speaking up and coming up with childcare and tenure solutions to help each other.

Mayurika Lahari, assistant professor, cancer biology at Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research, Pune, started a "daycare revolution" on the campus. Fuelled by her own child's needs of a creche, Mayurika worked hard to set up and chair a daycare committee at the institute. The center, called Hullabaloo, now serves around 50 children of IISER teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as research institutes in a radius of 2 kilometers from the campus.

"It is very important to have a daycare facility on-campus. When I'm working I don't even think about my child because I know she's safe. My research has benefited from the daycare. I am able to spend more time here… till 6:30 the whole time is for me and my students," she told the Life of Science. The government has since made it mandatory for all government-run institutes to have a creche on their campus.

Many people came together to fight biases against women obtaining a tenured position, which resulted in establishing a new system of ‘pausing the tenure clock" for women in cases of maternity. Similar battles for spaces for breastfeeding, childcare and promoting hiring "two-career couples' are being fought across the country.

Vidita Vaidya, a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and part of the Women in Science panel, thinks things will change quicker if the government adopted a uniform policy across all the institutes it runs. "These policies should not have to be reinvented every single time in every single institution all over the country," she told eLife.

Many women researchers agree that a supportive family is necessary for them to concentrate on their research without having to worry too much about family responsibilities. According to Nandita Jayaraj, one of the founders of the website Life of Science, "a solid support system", including a supportive spouse, is essential for success in the field.

The AASSA report recognized that a dearth of mentorship causes many women to drop out, given the lack of people to look up to and relate to. Ram Ramaswamy, at the department of physical sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, "Women in science need mentors that they can identify with, and that too locally."

The book Daughters of Lilavati, released in 2008, sought to fill this gap by telling the stories of 100 women scientists in India. The title is a throwback to Lilavati, Bhaskaracharya's treatise in which he addresses a number of problems to his daughter, Lilavati. This compilation of personal essays was an attempt to inspire young minds in the country and show them how women can succeed in academic environments across a range of disciplines.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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