Women In Science, A Brand New Formula Needed In India

Women have more than a hand in science. Now they need power too.
Women have more than a hand in science. Now they need power too.
Nithyanand Rao

NEW DELHI — A recent photo posted on Facebook by the Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, Ashutosh Sharma, featured 41 heads of Indian educational and research institutions. It didn't take long for Shobana Narasimhan, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, to point out that not a single one was a woman.

Only 20% of tenured faculty positions in Indian educational and research institutions are held by women. Other numbers are even more skewed: only 12 women are Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences (there are 197 men); only 3 women are members of the governing councils of centrally funded institutions (there are 83 men).

These were some of the startling facts discussed at the first meeting of the Gender in Physics working group of the Indian Physics Association (IPA), held on March 22 at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bangalore.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics had set up a Women in Physics working group, back in 1999. Since 2002, it has been conducting the International Conference on Women in Physics every three years and also workshops which come up with recommendations and resolutions. At this conference, teams from various countries make presentations and share their experiences of how the gender disparity in physics can be addressed.

The male-only "family photo" of those leading India's research institutions (Source: Facebook)

For Neelima Gupte, a professor at IIT Madras, the 2002 conference had been an eye-opener. "For a long time, we hadn't realized that many of the issues we faced were actually gender discrimination issues," she said.

Resmi Lekshmi of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, Trivandrum, attended the International Conference on Women in Physics twice, in 2014 and 2017. On both occasions, she says, "we couldn't quite succeed in getting a male physicist to be part of the Indian team which attended the conference."

Prajval Shastri, Professor, Indian Institute for Astrophysics, who also attended these conferences, found that every country except India had a working group. So on Women's Day 2016, she and others made a proposal to the IPA to set one up, which she now leads.

An immediate outcome was that in March 2017, Resonance, the undergraduate science education journal; Physics News, the newsletter of the IPA; and Current Science, the flagship journal of the Indian Academy of Sciences, all published issues edited and authored entirely by women.

"This was to demonstrate that it is quite ordinary and regular for women to do what men do," said Shastri. They had found, for instance, that at most 10% of articles in Physics News were authored by women. "Editorial boards think of only males when they think of a scientist. We wanted to show that there is no shortage of women who can do this too."

The working group acknowledged that even within the IPA, there's work to be done. Women are represented poorly in IPA's decision-making committees, and also when it comes to being chosen for its named lectures and awards. Until recently, only one out of the 24 chosen to deliver the CV Raman Lecture had been a woman.

At the country's top graduate school for physics, the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Mumbai, only two out of 34 enrolled PhD students in the Department of Theoretical Physics are women. This is indicative of a trend in other top Indian institutions as well, despite that fact that women students make up about 45% of enrollments in undergraduate science programms nationwide.

But the gender gap manifests itself in more insidious ways too. Suchetana Chatterjee, assistant professor at the Presidency University, Kolkata, argued that there is little correlation between performance in competitive examinations that are meant as entrance tests for graduate school, and one's eventual success in research.

She cited a 2015 study that showed that, in the US, a large fraction of the women and minorities who went on to be awarded prestigious research fellowships wouldn't have had the opportunity to do their PhD at all, had their admission to graduate school been based purely on their scores on the physics GRE.

This, she argued, holds in India as well – people from disadvantaged groups, including women, might come to believe that their under-performance in entrance exams implies that they aren't good enough for research. Bindu Bambah, a particle physicist and professor at the University of Hyderabad, added that this becomes very evident from the interviews which follow entrance exams, where women candidates often display a lack of self-esteem.

Institutions tend to protect the accused men.

Sexual harassment was discussed prominently at the meeting, with both the members of the Working Group and the audience admitting that institutional mechanisms for addressing cases of sexual harassment often do not work. Many cases go unreported, where the victim is often intimidated into silence. Even when harassment is reported, the victim may decide that it's not worth the "mental stress' to fight a prolonged battle, said Tanusri Saha-Dasgupta, a senior professor at the SN Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata.

She spoke of a student who decided to go ahead and press for action against the accused, but no action was eventually taken. That this was no isolated case became clear from the discussion involving the audience members too – institutions tend to protect the accused men.

"Those whose misconduct has been proven should not be in positions of authority, at the very least," said Rohini Godbole, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. But the question of what to do when the institutional mechanism fails needs to be pondered, she acknowledged. "Women often have no choice but to leave an institution where they have faced harassment, because they cannot get justice," said Gupte. "Many such cases remain unknown outside those institutions."

The working group could operate legal helplines but for the fact, as Shastri admitted, that it doesn't have any funding at the moment. Other problems abound: the difficulty in obtaining medical leave, the casual everyday sexist remarks and insinuations, getting shunted sideways into less important decision making bodies.

"The culture of science organizations is such that they do not give entry to women," felt Anitha Kurup, a sociologist and professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. She also felt that scientists and social scientists need to interact more and work together to find better ways to close the gender gap in science and, crucially, that men needed to be involved in these discussions too.

"I never thought the next generation would be here facing the same problems that women of my generation have faced. It disheartens me," said Bambah. "We have to put a stop to all this. It is about time."

*Nithyanand Rao is a freelance science journalist in Bengaluru

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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