The many kinds of underprivileging: women’s lives matter, from root to STEM


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Issues related to empowerment of women in Academia have been discussed at various forums for the last two decades. But what has been achieved and what remains to be achieved? Which recommendations were implemented and which were not? Why? Vineeta Bal examines these issues with special reference to the current socio-economic situation of India.

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Women in natural science academia were/are not prominent in mainstream feminist movements in any country, including India. Women’s movements demanding equal rights and status for women have been ongoing organised efforts since the nineteenth century. In India they began with the push to prevent the burning of widows on their husbands’ pyres, and then, slowly, to educate women. With those efforts, while the social status of women in urban India has improved a lot since those days, in many parts of rural India that is not the case. Inevitably then, any conversation about women in academia is effectively a conversation about women in urban India. Additionally, institutions of higher education, especially in the natural sciences, are still rarities in rural India. So is it at all worthwhile to think about the status of the small group of urban, educated Indian women in natural science academia? Yes it is, in part because all justice matters, but more because the constraints of such a relatively ‘privileged’ group provide a measure of just how far justice still remains for their far more underprivileged rural sisters.


The question is also interesting because, while the women’s movement in India has developed strong roots and a noticeable presence, the difficulties and discrimination faced by women in the natural sciences, – teachers, researchers, technologists, entrepreneurs, businesswomen or those who are unemployed, – are not a major consideration for the mainstream feminist movement. The major reason, as I see it, is that these women, at least when employed, are economically not as underprivileged as women from other sections of society are. Women with natural science education are well-educated, urban women from the middle to upper middle classes.


Yet, they remain underprivileged, they lag professionally behind their men colleagues and do not have the same opportunities for fulfilling their aspirations, even when they have very similar educational as well as social backgrounds. Is this a less important question? No; the fulfillment of aspirations is at the core of being human. So what are the critical issues that contribute to trained women lacking opportunities?


Women in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (or Mathematics)] : a fashionable topic or a real concern?!

The first ever publication on ‘women in science’ in PubMed (a free full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature) appeared in 1910 titled ‘Eminence of women in science’. A search today for the same phrase comes up with 401 listed publications. They are mostly in the form of letters or commentaries. A further analysis of the dates of publication provide for an interesting pattern (Figure 1). Between 1910 to 1990, only 33 publications are recorded. From 1991 onwards there is a clear increase in the frequency. In the last 5 years, the frequency has really jumped up. But it is peculiar that ‘women in science’ and ‘India’ as keywords throw up only 5 publications, the first of which appeared in 1994 when Kalpana Sharma wrote a commentary on women scientists in India. Even more peculiarly, the next set of 4 references pop up in 2018 and 2019! For nearly twenty-five years in between, there were no publications, which appeared in PubMed listed journals. Even in bioRxiv, there are currently about 20 publications listed on the topic, of which only one is from India. It must be noted here that my focus on PubMed and bioRxiv clearly shows my bias as a researcher in biomedical sciences. However, the proportion of women scientists has always been maximum in the biomedical field amongst natural sciences and hence there is some justification in analyzing what biomedical women scientists think about their status and ways to improve it.

Figure 1. Number of publications on Women in Science globally and in India. Data source: PubMed.

While women’s presence in scientific circles was noted more as an exception than a routine event from the early 1900s, it was in 1971 that the Association for Women in Science in the US was established. Indian Women Scientists Association was set up in 1973. With an increasing global awareness of sidelined trained human-power in the form of women scientists, there were discussions taking place, more amongst women scientists themselves and in different disciplines of natural sciences. An outcome of that is still seen in the form of holding seminars about issues concerning women professionals in Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (or Mathematics). In India from mid-1990s, for nearly a decade and a half, there seemed to be serious thought given to the status of professional women in STEM. In my opinion, that seriousness has gone down over time, though discussions continue to take place, and the reasons are worth thinking about.


After the initiation of economic neo-liberalisation in the early nineties, funding levels for scientific research (or ‘R&D in S&T’ as it is called) began to increase slowly, and this slow but by and large steady increase continued into the early years of this century. While the increases were never large, there certainly were no major budget cuts and the amounts of money available for STEM research, at least in the major public sector ‘national institutions’, went up. In this context and background, there were two distinct ways in which empowerment of women in STEM progressed during this period. The first was the passive ‘trickle-down’ effect. The standard argument for this has been (and continues to be) that, if there is more money, it becomes available to everyone, from the top of the ladder to the bottom. The amount of money will, of course, differ, and those at the ‘top’ will get more than those at the ‘bottom’. Nonetheless, everyone will benefit, and therefore, it is assumed that no active steps are needed specifically to improve matters for the underprivileged. They get more, too! This is the capitalist mode of ‘taking care’ of everyone in society. A consequence of the funding situation of that period, for example, was the creation of quite a number of new national STEM institutions. Naturally, this increased job opportunities for scientists and technologists, and of course, some women also got in. This was the ‘trickle-down’ effect, which benefited some professional women in STEM.


The alternative approach to addressing specific underprivileging would be to undertake an active effort for correction of the disadvantages that are driven by prevalent patriarchal social structures. For this, active steps would need to be taken so that more women will have opportunities. For this, the women that are already in STEM need to be made more visible as role models, and the difficulties in achieving the same goals as men need to be removed in the best possible ways. During this period of about fifteen-odd years, active efforts were made to bring more and more women into research and academia. Various committees were constituted for data collection and providing recommendations. Discussions about sidelining of women colleagues were taking place with participation at the highest levels, such as ministers and Secretaries of various government departments.


At about the same time, there was another separate thread of discourse converging into these conversations. This was the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace, which was being discussed more and more prominently. While very few women – from students to senior faculty members – had formally complained, it was clear from anecdotal information that universities and research institutions were not free from sexual harassment. A result was the formal recommendations of legal provisions against sexual harassment, in the form of the ‘Vishakha judgement’ of the Supreme Court of India. Again, this provided further nuance as well as urgency to the issue of the underprivileging of women in STEM.


A result of all these activities was that many recommendations were made. Government funded research institutions and universities were expected to start implementing the recommendations. And it sometimes feels as though that is where more or less the matter ended!


The recommendations themselves, for implementations in the public-sector setups where highly trained women work, were not an easy achievement. One example of such an effort was the work of the ‘Task Force for Women in Science’ constituted by the Ministry of Science and Technology in December 2005. While there was active participation by women, by teachers, researchers and scholars in gender and women’s studies to frame the recommendations, they were obviously submitted to the ‘appropriate authorities’ in S&T. These authorities were almost invariably men, since positions of power are mostly occupied by men. Inevitably, efforts to criticize and to dilute the recommendations began immediately. The committees had arrived at their recommendations based on meeting working women, collecting data on education and employment, studying the ground realities of women’s working lives. It was clear to the members of the committee that improvements, when they happen, will be slow and uncertain, and that very sustained efforts will be needed. Building supportive infrastructure for encouraging women’s participation will be a critical practical first step that can perhaps be achieved if governments implemented the recommendations of the committee. The other necessary component of change, changing the patriarchal mindset of society at large, is a slow process, and requires sustained social activism rather than committee recommendations to government officials.


What the government can do best in the short term is top-down work, so it should be no surprise that the committees kept the focus of their recommendations on practical issues of building a supportive infrastructure for women in STEM. However, these recommendations of the committee (See Box 1 below), – suggestions for making crèches, clean toilets / restrooms available to women at the workplace, – were considered ‘minor’ and superficial by government authorities (mostly men sitting in positions of power!). This led to two gains for the decision makers and both resulted in strengthening the culture of patriarchy. One was that the government did not take seriously even the work that was at least possible for the government to do. The second was the bonus of being able to imply that women (committee members!) simply do not have the ability to ‘dream’ or to ‘think big’ to demand ‘transformational’ social changes!


‘Gender equality’ is an amorphous concept and making rules to achieve it at the workplace are hard to make and harder to follow, even with carrot and stick approaches. Discrimination of women, subtle or overt, intended or unintentional, exists in any professional setting when men are the majority in decision-making bodies. Discrimination that gender minorities face, while more stark, will not be directly addressed here.  Bringing gender parity even in faculty selection and promotion review committees has been hard to achieve. Similarly, when pushing against prevailing norms, it is important to keep track of what has actually been achieved on the ground. Nonetheless, when strong recommendations were made by the Task Force for Women in Science for gender budgeting and data gathering; and display of men and women employee numbers at each level in order to monitor yearly ‘progress’ in gender parity, they were not considered seriously and have not been implemented.


However, some after-effects of those years of efforts are still visible. One is the constitution of committees in research and academic organisations to address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. The law notified in 2013 addressing sexual harassment of women in the workplace has resulted in making these committees legally mandatory, even though every committee thus set up does not function optimally. A mandate for these committees is to work to increase awareness in the community regarding sexual harassment. As a result, some efforts in the area continue. Another gain of sorts is that, every now and then, a workshop or a symposium or a special session in a mainstream meeting on ‘Women in STEM’ gets organised, though none of these are given great importance and are mostly treated as ‘fashionable’ events. But even this much inclusion, howsoever marginal, is useful.


Possible reasons for setbacks

The visible push in the nineties for women’s empowerment in STEM was meant, among other goals, to increase the number of women in every position of public sector STEM employment, – teachers, researchers and academics in public sector research organisations, – and at every level of the power hierarchies involved. Notably, there was no active effort made at that time to push for such changes in organisations in the private sector, although it was hoped that women in the private sector will also benefit with peer pressure (as a bystander effect!). One reason why these efforts petered out is, clearly, the lack of political will. Another reason was that the effort, which depended quite a bit on ‘trickle-down’, faded due to the tightening financial situation of STEM funding in the country. Over the past decade or so, the real value of S&T funding is just about keeping pace with inflation at best, and quite frequently not even that. So the passive effect of higher funding inflows waned. There were major setbacks to new academic employment. In such a situation of job scarcity, whatever permanent jobs were available went to ‘regularize’ people who had worked as contract employees for years, as in the case of universities. While job opportunities for men also went down, the impact on women as the underprivileged group was inevitably more severe. A World Bank report published in 2017 on female participation in the labour force in India, while not specifically talking about women scientists, does clearly document a decrease in women’s employment from 2004–05 to 2011–12 by 11.4%.


In addition, a number of socio-political reasons can and do contribute to trained women in STEM not finding jobs, or losing jobs, or not performing well enough for promotions in the eyes of the review committees. The obvious social reasons take a heavy toll on women. These include, but are not restricted to, marriage, child bearing, child rearing, household responsibilities, looking after the elderly and the sick in the family etc. Interviews of single women scientists who do not have to worry at least about marriage, child bearing and child rearing have shown that this particular personal choice has been helpful to them in doing well in the profession. On the other hand, married women in STEM, whether doing a job or not, have mentioned the responsibilities that they have to shoulder as a very significant cause for their not making as much progress in the field as they would have liked to.


Another aspect of this ‘reverse trickle-down effect’, in which adverse circumstances affect the underprivileged even more than they affect the privileged, has recently become prominent. Natural disasters such as tsunamis, cyclones, floods, droughts adversely affect all life including in the workplace. Inevitably, they increase the load on women’s already overburdened shoulders even further, with obvious sad consequences for the abilities of women in STEM to continue to do their professional work. The current glaring example of this is, of course, COVID-19. As we struggle to survive lockdowns, many traditional womanly chores fall back on women otherwise working full time. Some face loss of jobs, others struggle to do justice to work-from-home situations in the absence of help in domestic labour, unavailable crèches, etc. School-going children need help and attention because not only they are at home instead of being at school but they have online classes. Working couples are not accustomed to being together 24×7, that too in presence of economic tensions. As a result, instances of increase in domestic tension and violence are reported. There has been extensive reportage of such tensions in the print and electronic media. In this scenario, maintaining professional connections and fulfilling responsibilities such as online teaching and/or research commitments becomes incredibly hard for women in STEM. Men are not immune to any of these, of course, but many surveys indicate that, when both husband and wife are working and have been forced to stay home for prolonged periods, it is the woman’s professional work which suffers much more. A recent online survey conducted by a NGO in Pune is interesting in this context. While it was not specifically focused on women professionals in STEM, its context makes it likely to be quite applicable to them. It shows that more than 50% of the male respondents (out of ~370 men participating in the survey) acknowledged the fact that the woman of the house spends disproportionately large amounts of time in household work. About a third of the men also acknowledge a critically important role for paid domestic labour, which goes missing during complete lockdowns. And, interestingly, at least half the men respondents, who have been helping their partners in home maintenance over this period, said they would continue to help their partners even after the lockdown.


Similarly, these prolonged COVID-19 periods of lockdown and of life periodically coming to a standstill have other adverse consequences. For researchers in natural sciences, whether they are theoreticians or experimentalists, the setback to the pursuit of research is enormous. For younger people pursuing doctoral or postdoctoral work, either finding a promising post-doctoral position or finding an interesting faculty position will become harder due to delays in getting work done, writing manuscripts, publishing work and so on. They may not be able to start or continue as post-doctoral researchers because of the inevitable funding constraints. Early career researchers may not be able to cross the Rubicon to get their major grants funded and to build a sufficiently sound track record to be sure of a permanent position. Among these groups of young STEM scientists, because of the age-related coincidence of marriage and associated responsibilities including young children, young women are a lot more vulnerable to these career breaks; even more than they already are in more normal non-pandemic circumstances. In fact, there are already studies, both papers and ‘pre-prints’, reporting that women researchers in medicine and biology are publishing much less as compared to what they did in the same period a year ago. There are anecdotal stories of women declining to work as peer-reviewers, as members of or evaluators for committees, as a result of not having help for household work, babysitting, and child care. A group of women (‘500 women scientists’) has described how scientist mothers face extra challenge during COVID-19 and that is just one among many such articles which have found their way in scientific journals.


There are other, sometimes local, reasons for the setbacks as well. While people in India outside of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) are experiencing lockdown and curfew since March 2020, people in J&K have been experiencing ‘lockdown’ since August 2019, ever since article 370 of the Indian Constitution was revoked, converting the state of J&K into union territories. The restrictions have not yet eased back to normalcy. This disproportionately affects young women in STEM in J&K because they are the ones who have stayed back in the State. Conversations with the students and faculty members in J&K, especially in the valley, bring out the fact that families are willing to send the boys out of J&K for education and career opportunities, but are reluctant the send girls. Thus, highly educated women are a common feature in the valley. Thus they have faced the brunt of lockdown, near absence of internet connectivity etc. over the years, but certainly so in the pandemic situation.


What efforts will be needed? Traditional ones? New, innovative ones?

Tremendous efforts will be needed globally to bring the economy back on track in the post-COVID-19 era. As mentioned above women, from their marginalized position in the society, have been pushed in more marginalized positions due to downturn of economy. This is likely to be accentuated in the post-COVID-19 scenario.


The Task Force for Women in Science in 2008 had come up with strong recommendations that will help improve status of women scientists. Most of the recommendations are relevant even today and many have not been implemented. A brief summary of those are quoted in the box below.



 BOX 1. Brief summary of recommendations of the Task Force for Women in Science (2008)


(1) Affirmative action to improve women’s ratios

  • Introduce Time-bound Recruitment Target System (TRS)
  • Women’s representation in search/hiring committees
  • Addressing proactively the unwritten, irrational barriers on employment of spouses
  • Women-friendly proceedings of search/selection/hiring committees
  • Priority to women candidates in part-time jobs, jobs with flexible working hours and those workable from home

(2) Enabling measures for career advancement and re-entry

  • Targeted research programmes for women scientists
  • Refresher training and mentorship programmes for women scientists for re-entry in R&D careers after a career break

(3) Breaking the glass ceiling

  • Promote Women scientists as science planners and managers

(4) Support-related issues at work place

  • Financial support for improvement of overall generic facilities such as crèches, toilets, campus housing and safe transportation for post-docs and scientists
  • Compliance of the Supreme Court Guidelines
  • Separate procedure for handling complaints of harassment by women scientists against the heads of the institutions
  • Provision for air travel even for women who are not eligible, particularly in difficult/far-flung/isolated areas



  • Summer/winter science camps for girls who have opted for science
  • Well-planned role model programme with successful women scientists
  • Special fellowship scheme for girl toppers in university examinations
  • Safe hostel accommodation for girls in towns and cities
  • Free/subsidized residential science schools for girls
  • Opportunities for closer interaction for school or college students with women scientists during scientific conferences
  • Educational reforms
  • Re-enforcing representation of girls and women in science text books



  • National level Gender-segregated data collection, annual upgradation and processes monitoring
  • Institute Transformation Award
  • From ‘maternity leave’ to Family leave
  • Salary-linked child-care allowance in the absence of crèche on campus
  • Gender Unit in all the State Councils for Science, Technology and Environment
  • Establishment/augmentation of infrastructure of women’s universities
  • Promoting entrepreneurship and self-employment for women scientists



  • The Task Force recommends setting up of a Standing Committee under the Ministry of Science and Technology. This Committee should be vested with administrative and financial powers and also a dedicated secretariat.
  • The Standing Committee would take proactive measures to correct any imbalances that still persist and hinder women in science. These would help in formulating plans to ensure the gender justice and support the women in becoming strategic stakeholders in the society.



As will be obvious, some of the recommendations, at least in part, have been implemented. For example, over the past decade most search /hiring /selection committees have at least one token woman member, if not more. Most government funded or government aided educational or research institutions have a committee to address instances of sexual harassment at workplaces. Number of crèches in general have increased, especially in urban areas, and hence working women with young children find it as a great help. Some special schemes such as WOmen Scientists (WOS) schemes from the Department of Science and Technology or Biotechnology Career Advancement and Re-orientation Programme (BioCARe) from the department of Biotechnology are implemented as re-entry schemes for women who left the job and career due to family responsibility, but such schemes are really very few in number and opportunities very limited.


Equally obvious is the fact that many recommendations have not seen the light of the day. Even today, a decade later, search /selection /hiring committees are not necessarily friendly to women. While gender-segregated data collection for employment in every educational and research institution is feasible, it is often not implemented. Time-bound recruitment target system has remained only on paper. The idea behind expanding the scope of ‘maternity leave’ to ‘family leave’ was to encourage both partners in caring for the family – looking after kids and the elderly. While it got implemented, the thought-process behind it got left behind and only women started using this leave. The recommendation back-fired to an extent because when women avail the leave, their male colleagues treat it as a privilege that women misuse instead of acknowledging extra burden as ‘care-givers’ that they handle. Many other recommendations need changing of the mindset of the society and any such change is hard to evaluate when implementation of the recommendation itself has not taken place.


COVID-19 has forced work-from-home situation on men and women scientists. As “500 women scientists” write:

‘The pandemic has made clear that many of the accommodations that employers are now willing to make could have been made sooner. For years, #DisabledandSTEM advocates asked for the ability to work from home and flexibility of assignments, but met resistance. These are the same accommodations that scientific institutions are now making for all staff. The pandemic is making it abundantly clear how scientific institutions can make science more inclusive and accessible for everyone, parents or not.’.


One can live in hope that the dark days brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to a silver lining for women in STEM after all.


Vineeta Bal is a Visiting Faculty at the Department of Biology, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune. 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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