What It’s Like to Be A Woman Scientist in India

What It’s Like to Be A Woman Scientist in India

indian woman scientists - lilavati's daughters - badal ja

One of the main reasons I read is to get to know a person, real or fictional. This curiosity about people recently led to my acquaintance with a number of Indian women scientists through the book Lilavati’s Daughters. Compiled by the Indian Academy of Sciences, the book is a collection of essays about women in science and is part of a larger initiative to address the underrepresentation of women in the field.

Recognizing that few women were pursuing careers in science, the Indian Academy of Sciences established the “Women in Science” committee in 2003. The objective? To study the factors that influence women to opt in or out of science careers, and to provide an action plan toward a more gender-balanced scientific community. The committee has published multiple reports that examine issues that limit women’s access to and retention in science careers. They have also initiated mentorship programs, scholarships for girls to attend university, research fellowships for high-achieving women, ways for women scientists to showcase their work, and career guidance workshops.

SEE ALSO: Female Feynmans – Special report on Indian women scientists

The committee created Lilavati’s Daughters to share words of wisdom to young women looking to make their name in science. The essays—biographies by and about 100 Indian women in science—touch on a mix of what inspired their passion for the field, their career progress, balancing career and family life, their experience with gender bias, and the importance of mentorship. I’d recommend the book as a gift for teenage girls who show an interest in science, engineering, medicine, and related fields—remind them that they can dream big! This book will also resonate with any women who have struggled with the famous “work-life balance” as they pursue their passions, in a scientific career or otherwise.

I’ve gathered here excerpts from eight essays to give you a sense of these women’s fascinating stories, reflections, and achievements.

If you want to order the book, you can contact the Indian Academy of Sciences at office@ias.ac.in or orders@ias.ernet.in. You can also place an order online through Scholars Without Borders. Each copy is Rs. 300.

On family support:

Chitra Sarka – Professor of Pathology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences

Most women feel that family responsibilities are a hindrance to professional progress. But I feel I have progressed only because of family support and encouragement, first from my parents, then my husband and finally my daughter, who never complained about the time that my profession demanded.

Sujatha Ramdorai – Professor of Mathematics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

It is often difficult, at a social level, to convey the pleasure of a life-long fascination with knowledge, and even more so when it is mathematical knowledge! … My attitude to academics was shaped by my grandmother, who all through her life lamented the fact that she was not fortunate enough to have had a full education.

On motherhood:

Sudeshna Sinha – Professor, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai

 Often a turning point of women’s personal and professional life is motherhood … I suppose, ideally, one should have a faculty position before starting a family. I didn’t quite manage that. I remember going for a job talk when I was carrying my daughter. I wore an umbrella-cut kameez to disguise my growing girth! I was afraid that my impending motherhood would render me quite unemployable.

On collaborative partners: 

H S Savithri – Department of Biochemistry, IISc, Bangalore

The work in my lab and Murthy’s [her husband’s] lab has been complementary: his students and mine have worked together, and one of the most pleasurable times for me has been discussions together to analyze and interpret the data and come up with explanations and more experiments and more questions.

On gender discrimination:

R J Hans-Gill ­– Emeritus Professor, Punjab University

My uncle Narsher Singh, who was naib tehsildar at Balachaur, very reluctantly agreed to let me stay with him and study at a school for boys, where I could only go posing as a boy. This was a secret between our family and the headmaster. My uncle was totally against the education of women and it was only after many requests from me and my father that he decided upon this course. I enjoyed wearing a turban and going to school with my brother!

On the joys of teaching:

Priya Davidar – Dean of the School of Life Sciences, Pondicherry University

I have trained many students and many of the women have distinguished careers of their own. Female ecologists are well accepted by the rural population…and in more than 20 years of teaching, we never had an incident of violence towards students even in the remotest places in the jungle.

On the way forward:

Shikha Varma – Physicist, Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar

A policy decision should be made to encourage the hiring of deserving couples to permanent positions at the same place so that early years of research do not get wasted on long distance commuting or the woman sacrificing her career (which happens most often).

Neelima Gupte – Professor, IIT Madras

What would we, the women of this generation, like to see for the women of the next generation? Perhaps the ideal situation would be if they were in a position so advantageous, that they would wonder what all the fuss that we make had been about.

Further Reading