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Leaky pipeline for women in science: Causes and solutions (Part 1)

Aditi Jain

The low number of women in leadership positions in science is a cause for concern for the scientific community worldwide. In India, a report by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) showed that while quite a few women enrol in doctoral degrees in STEM, only a few women reach either faculty or higher administrative positions. 

On International Women’s Day, we interviewed a few women in science from different career levels to understand the most common factors that hinder women in science and some possible ways to improve this situation. This is the first article in a two-part series compiling these insights.

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About the contributors:

Rohini Godbole is a Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and the editor of two popular books on women in Science (Lilavati’s Daughters and The Girl’s Guide to Life in Science). Manjari Jain is an ecologist and an Assistant Professor at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Mohali. Swati Subodh is a Senior Scientific Officer at India Health Fund, Co-founder of 1M1B (1 Million for 1 Billion) Foundation and Columnist. Lekha Bandopadhyay is the principal investigator of a project funded under DST’s Women Scientist Scheme‑A at Bose Institute, Kolkata. Siuli Mitra is a Professional Expert (Science Communication & Public Relations) at Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad.

We asked these women in science what, according to them, are the factors that hinder women in science from reaching their full potential.

Rohini Godbole: There are two main types of challenges that impede the progress of women in science. First, there are some obvious and visible challenges. Unlike in other professions, for a career in science, there is a gestation period after getting the PhD degree, during which one has to establish oneself in a research career and develop a niche. But it is also the time when the biological clock is ticking. Since science does not wait for anybody, those who consciously take a break in this period have the disadvantage of starting a few meters behind the starting line. 

Another issue specific to careers in science/​technology is the fact that jobs are available only at a few locations which limits one’s options. Negotiating the balance between family and career is another challenge. This issue is controlled by social conventions and expectations — expectations from society, family, as well as from women themselves. All of these are reinforced during a woman’s upbringing.

There exist invisible biases about what women can and cannot do, should and should not do.

There exist, in addition, a set of invisible and unconscious challenges. These are the biases about what women can and cannot do, or what they should and should not do. These biases can directly impact both the number of women in science and their level of achievement. There is also a lack of importance attached to women’s participation in science in the eyes of society and the scientific community alike. This directly affects the amount and quality of mentoring that women receive as well as the help they receive in handling dual responsibilities. 

Other forms of invisible challenges include hiring practices which impact management of dual careers (such as not hiring couples together) and the lack of women-friendly workplace environments and practices. Further, recognition/​awards for women are quite often delayed and missed due to various reasons. Such recognition plays a role in forming general perceptions in society about women’s participation in science.

Manjari Jain: There are many challenges which have already been talked about many times. I want to emphasize that there is an inherent negative bias against women just by virtue of being women. There are additional problems attached to being a working woman (not specific to women in science) some of which I am mentioning below in order of severity faced by myself:

There is an inherent negative bias against women just by virtue of being women.
  1. Lack of equitable childcare responsibilities: The most limiting factor in my opinion (and experience) is childcare responsibilities. Women have to keep inventing ways to circumvent this problem. Even when spouses are cooperative, the distribution is not always equitable and often women are hesitant to spell it out lest their spouses feel their efforts have not been acknowledged. A factor somewhat specific to mothers in science is that in many cases, women choose to have children later in life which results in children being dependent on you at a time when you most desperately need to work. You cannot afford to go home late from the lab and fieldwork often becomes a practical impossibility. 
  2. Reduced participation in networking and academic social life: Inability to attend conferences as much as men do (due to additional responsibilities at the home front, even without a child) can result in a lack of exposure and lack of opportunity to make new collaborations. One loses out on the opportunity to learn new techniques or be exposed to current discussions. Also not being invited to give talks as much as men results in reduced visibility and acknowledgement of work in academic circles.

Swati Subodh: In my opinion, women encounter their biggest professional challenge at a mid-career stage when they start their marital or family life. This is also the time when we’re supposed to accelerate our careers by taking tenure track academic positions or take on more assignments, competitive grants, publish papers, file patents etc. to build our scientific credibility. For most women, the professional deceleration happens many months (or years!) before they actually need to take a break. This is due to the anticipation of making major personal decisions during this time. As a result, the anxiety of not being able to deliver on commitments sets in much earlier. In between lowered aspiration and increased self-doubt, considerable time is lost during the most crucial period of one’s professional life.

It is disheartening to see women gradually disengaging and aspiring to lesser goals. It’s not just an individual’s loss, rather it’s our collective loss.

Due to high demands on their time at both professional and personal fronts simultaneously, most women choose to focus on the latter. They either opt-out of an active professional life or take on less demanding roles, both of which have a long-standing effect on how their career takes shape from thereon. As a result, very few women are able to maintain their professional momentum and the sharp decline in the number of women in mid to late-career compared to early career is proof of this. This skewed equation is also reflected in the abysmal number of women in leadership roles.

A career in science requires not just intellect and domain knowledge but also creativity, teamwork, objectivity, analytical and communication skills, something that many women are naturally good at. It is quite disheartening to then see women gradually disengaging and aspiring to lesser goals. It’s not just an individual’s loss, rather it’s our collective loss.

Lekha Bandopadhyay: Some of the factors holding back women are the same factors that also affect men, like short term contracts, age bar in job applications, and insecurity due to the scarcity of suitable positions after higher degrees in science. After a certain level, women also find themselves with fewer female colleagues and seniors. It thus demands additional strength and effort to create a place for themselves in a male-centric culture. Perhaps all these factors cumulatively portray a career in science as difficult to women already burdened with time-consuming family responsibilities including child care.

Siuli Mitra: Absence of direct and indirect societal support including limited assistance with household responsibilities, overemphasis on advancing the social ladder (through marriage, for instance) and limited examples of women who reached leadership positions in science to look up to as role models, are some of the factors that hold back women in science.

In the second part of this article, we asked these women in science to suggest some possible solutions to these issues which, in their opinion, can result in greater numbers of women in science if implemented at an institutional, societal, or policy level. 

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