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Gender Diversity in Science Education and Research: Student Aspirations

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Summary

The single most important factor that appeared to help students is a good mentor. Sustained interaction with a mentor who provided encouraging and positive counselling, along with access to support groups (online or offline, peers or family) is what helped students overcome bias. Unfortunately, this piecemeal and highly personalized route is not sufficient if we wish to address bias at the national level, in terms of policy.

Full Article

A decentralized, consultative exercise is currently underway to frame the latest Science, Technology and Innovation policy (STIP 2020) for India. This is the first time that anyone, regardless of position or qualification, can have their views recorded. This is hugely empowering, especially for students who may not necessarily see policy as an area where their voice and contribution matter. Taking a cue from this approach, this essay seeks to present student perceptions and solutions on gender bias in science education and research.

 

An email was circulated to solicit students who wished to be interviewed on the subject. Based on training (undergraduates to postdocs), gender and field of study, a small cross-sectional subset (8) were interviewed over the phone. Broadly, five questions were placed in an informal conversational style: Did they perceive the existence of gender bias? If yes, in what way? Did they or anyone they knew first hand experience bias? Were there any mechanisms in place to report this bias? What practical solutions would they like to see implemented to address gender issues in academia?

 

Unequivocally, there was agreement that gender bias exists, with women and minorities bearing the brunt. The bias is largely implicit, stemming from cultural stereotypes and perpetrated by supervisors as well as colleagues. When the bias is explicit, there is little or no recourse for redressal, especially when the relationship involves a power imbalance. Students fear the consequences of speaking up as it might damage their career or worse, jeopardize their chances of completing their degree. Significantly, even if a student doesn’t personally experience bias, they internalize the experience of those who do, with social networking playing an important role in amplifying the consequences of the bias. This amplification is often overlooked and is important to address because it means that bias by even a small minority, can influence culture at an institutional level. In terms of fields, bias was perceived to be worse in engineering, mathematical and physical sciences, as compared to chemical and biological sciences.

 

The single most important factor that appeared to help students is a good mentor. Sustained interaction with a mentor who provided encouraging and positive counselling, along with access to support groups (online or offline, peers or family) is what helped students overcome bias. Unfortunately, this piecemeal and highly personalized route is not sufficient if we wish to address bias at the national level, in terms of policy.

 

There are two words that capture the wants of the next generation of Indian scientists to improve gender diversity in academia: flexibility and empathy.

 

Flexibility must be tackled first at the level of psychology and then, at policy implementation. The mental flexibility construct has to do with perceptions of how science is performed – long hours, poor pay, high-risk in terms of time taken to achieve a “stable job” – and its unsuitability for personal satisfaction when non-science commitments (child care, medical emergency) require equal attention. In a patriarchal society such as ours, this is emphasized both inside and outside academia. To address this, students saw a crucial role for gender-sensitization workshops. While these are mandated in most educational institutions, participation is generally poor and the workshop may not discriminate between sexual harassment, a criminal offence, versus gender bias, a more chronic non-punishable offence. The lack of penalty and the ambiguous manner in which bias is perpetuated further make it harder to police. Students observed that while intent of policies in this area was progressive, its implementation was poor. Gender sensitization workshops thus have to become a norm, should be held frequently and incentivized (free lunch!). It should be for all groups at an institution – students, staff and faculty – as opposed to the current practice of it being primarily for students. As anyone who has wrestled with a mental block knows, it’s hard to dethrone set ways and ideas, especially when it requires accommodation and changes to power structure. This is where empathy can be brought in. Creating safe, non-judgmental avenues for colleagues to share thoughts and experiences allow different perceptions to be aired, especially implicit bias, which can be more thoroughly explored by dialogue. Therefore, workshops should be held in a congenial and non-coercive manner, which means they need a good incentive. All students also felt that such workshops need to start at a young age. Right from high school, where academic gender stereotypes begin to emerge, such as “boys do math, girls do biology”. Another pragmatic solution was to increase textual content in school books of role models who pursued their passions and whose achievements directly challenge pre-existing notions. This way, even if workshops don’t happen, students are still exposed to career possibilities sans gender.

 

Flexibility also needs to extend to how we imagine science career development. To students it appears that only individuals who demonstrate a straight line of evolution from undergraduate to post-doc studies successfully land a faculty position in Indian academia. Supervisors and reality augment the perception that taking a break (besides a short maternity leave) anywhere along the line, for professional or personal reasons, is interpreted as a lack of serious ambition for scientific research. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the validity of the idea that academic research should be a life-long linear pursuit. Increases in life expectancy, quality of life and the variety of available professions all argue against this idea. Today, over a lifetime, it is entirely possible to have multiple 15-20 yr career blocks, interspersed with breaks. Surprisingly, for a community that believes data should guide inference, the fact that there is little evidence demonstrating a correlation between age and professional productivity, except perhaps in Mathematics, is entirely ignored. Another concern that is touted is that in a tenure system, if you start late, repercussions of denied tenure are harder to deal with. But this claim too has not been rigorously verified. Unfortunately, many such hiring practices are based on “feelings” rather than data. Students observe that ageism is rampantly practiced in academic hiring, and have internalized a lower and upper age limit for faculty positions, despite there being no legal validity to this practice. Many academics have spoken out about it, but the policy needle on this has not moved one bit. This has a severe backlash especially for women, as academic training period and reproductive age often overlap.

 

Despite exceedingly progressive GOI schemes available to encourage women back to science, students expressed fear and anxiety about taking breaks. First, there is no mechanism to help students have flexibility during a PhD, both in terms of taking a break (except maternity) or portability. Students today want to explore multiple career options while in graduate school. On a practical note, those who get married, want to be together with their spouse. Currently PhD fellowships give sole power to the supervisor over handling of these situations. For both these scenarios, students expressed a need for accommodation. Funding agency sanctioned internship breaks and committee-led decision-making are two ways to address this need.

 

Second, the number of available grants are few in proportion to the number of women in higher education, and these fellowships are not sufficiently resourceful. Flexibility in grants would include default increase in fellowship tenure and salary to offset maternity break, increasing capital for human resource (to manage experiments) and fellowship (to offset childcare costs), for women with small infants. Empathy can complement flexibility. While maternity break serves to cement a bond between mother and child, at the end of one, a parent does not return to status quo, pre-pregnancy. A young parent experiences sleep deprivation, increased time outlay for childcare and unexpected interruptions. Institutions and colleagues can make allowances for young parents in small ways: organizing meetings within work timings, allowing digital participation, rooms for breast feeding, child care costs to attend meetings etc. A step further is to create environments to welcome young children not only for conferences but also for routine lab meetings.

 

Finally, students expressed a need for affirmative action, at least in the short run. Presently, competition for faculty positions is fierce and all genders compete for a small pool of available positions. A difficult but potentially game changing proposition is to have a certain number of positions exclusively for women. Given the rather complicated relationship India has with reservations, adding yet another quota might seem overwhelming, but there’s sufficient evidence that affirmative positive discrimination can help minorities. The IITs already have such a system in place, with 20% of undergraduate spots reserved for women. Extending that up all along the science training route, up to faculty recruitment, may be seriously considered.

 

We now have the largest number of 18-35y olds as a share of the total population in the world. This demography is critical for any economy and we have the opportunity to reap a dividend from it only if we create conditions for them to thrive. We must strive to build national and institutional cultures that respects and acknowledge choices, rather than placing a positive or negative value on them. Indian academia has a long way yet to go on this road.

 

The author would like to thank all the volunteers who generously shared their thoughts for this article. To shorten sentences, the term “students” is employed. This is a grave injustice to postdocs, who are trainees, not students. While a focus of this article has been women in academia, students made some recommendations that were applicable to members of the LGBTQ community as well. To complain anonymously about sexual harassment at the workplace, use shebox.nic.in, an initiative of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, GoI.

 

Megha is an Assistant Professor at the University of Trans-disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology, Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal.

This article is part of a Confluence Series called “Under-represented groups in academia: issues and way forward”. The remaining articles can be found here

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