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Women in Science, Engineering and Research’ Conclave 2016: A report

Vrushal Pendharkar

WiSER Conclave 2016
WiSER Conclave 2016   (Photo: WiSER, IISc Press)

“If I can get institutes to realise that something special needs to be done to encourage both young women students and faculty to prosper, then I would have achieved something,” said Rohini Godbole, Professor at the Center for High Energy Physics, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), emphatically setting the tone for the first Women in Science, Engineering and Research (WiSER) conference. Held on 2 April 2016 at IISc, Bangalore, the conference brought together women, and men, from industry and academia to confront gender issues. While many of the panelists and participants were faculty, students and alumni of IISc, there were participants from other institutes and companies too.

Godbole believes that the first step in addressing gender issues and bringing about change would be to initiate informed discussion and dialogue, leading to concrete solutions. “One dimension is policy changes but the second dimension is an awakening of the community,” she said. This, she hopes, will eventually create more opportunities in future for young women to continue working in science. It was a sentiment echoed by many other panelists at the intensive day long event packed with various interesting sessions.

The conference opened with an address by Godbole. This was followed by introductory remarks by Anurag Kumar, Director, IISc, and a keynote address by Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director, Biocon Limited. In his address, Anurag Kumar brought up the “leaky pipeline”— while there has been an increase in the number of girls in schools and colleges (currently stands at 30%), the percentage of women in research is as low as 10% at the postgraduate levels. This trend is not restricted to India but is a global phenomenon. He cited reasons from various studies, which indicate that some girls feel threatened by their colleagues and tend to back off, while others feel they are incapable of handling research along with cultural and social pressures from the society. Other studies indicate that women also feel isolated when in faculty positions. Godbole believes that as long as we increase the numbers in the early education levels, they will eventually percolate upwards. She strongly stated that the disparity of high representation of women in science education but low numbers in science research needs to be addressed.

The talks were followed by a general panel discussion moderated by Maya Sharma, Bangalore Bureau Chief, NDTV, which set the agenda for the conference, highlighting important issues faced by women scientists. A second panel discussion on Women in Science and Engineering zeroed in on some specific issues and was peppered with personal anecdotes related by the panelists. More inspiring stories were heard during the Mantras for Success session.

During the engaging general panel discussion. Maya Sharma posed several pressing and pertinent questions to the scientists in the panel: “Are women scientists taken seriously?”, “How do you go about changing societal perceptions?”, and “What is the way forward?” Sandhya Visweswariah, Professor, Department of Molecular Reproduction, Development and Genetics pointed to the fact that criteria for recognition are tilted in favor of men. Mazumdar-Shaw shared experiences of the time when she was building her company: “In the initial years of building my company I certainly felt being a woman was working against me. Banks didn’t want to lend and there was a difference in how investors perceived me.” These experiences made her determined to create more opportunities for women in leadership roles.

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath from the Centre for Neuroscience suggested proactive representation of women in faculty positions to improve the imbalance. Many speakers concurred that being gender neutral was the way forward. However, several panelists were unanimous in their opinion against reservation of women in education and faculty positions. Rudra Pratap, Chairperson and Professor, Centre for Nanoscience and Engineering, and a participant at the conference, later suggested that women should perhaps be recruited on individual, and not comparative, merit. He believes that institutes have been using incorrect and generic yardsticks when recruiting women and ignoring the unique skills and abilities that they bring to the table.

P K Das from the Division of Chemical Sciences, and the sole male representative in this panel discussion suggested that an adequate support system and conducive environment are needed for women to do good work. Geetha Kanna, Managing Director, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, said that we need to stop preaching to the choir—the ownership of the problem has to be taken by all stakeholders. There should be parity and not a case of one section empowering the other.

The panel on Women in Science and Engineering discussed the moral dilemma that women often face in choosing family over work among other things. The “two body problem”—the difficulty of both spouses finding work in the same location—was broached, among others. It was suggested that facilities like working from remote locations when one of the spouses have to relocate for work would help companies retain talent. Speaking for young scientists and professionals, Kavita Isvaran, Assistant Professor at IISc, said that adequate support systems should be in place and flexible paternity/maternity leave should be made available. Another panelist, Narayan Sundaram from IIT Kanpur, admitted that men were aware of the problems faced by women in various spheres of life, but often lacked the vocabulary to express their support.

The discussion turned to focus on changing attitudes in the society and the central role that family mindsets play in shaping children’s careers. A PhD student from Nigeria who attended the conference said that in her country it is taboo for a girl to be studying science, but her parents’ support has encouraged her to pursue her career of choice. Usha VijayRaghavan from the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology enthused that the path is far easier for the current generation than it was a few decades ago.

In the Mantras for Success session that followed, Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan, a young faculty from IISc, opined that women shouldn’t let others set limits of achievements for them. They should be able to make the best use of their opportunities, but at the same time, not be afraid to seek help.

The final session of the day was constituted by various round table discussions on topics such as gender parity, gender harassment, women leadership, women’s health, and security. Participants were asked to come up with some practical solutions to address problems and these were later discussed with the audience. Interesting observations and solutions, which could act as guidelines when framing policies and disseminating information to the community,  were proposed and discussed.

This conference was intended to be a stepping stone in the long road to changing the status of women in science. One participant, Lipika Sahoo, CEO, Lifeintelect Consultancy Pvt. Ltd, said that empowering women is essential not only to build stronger societies but also robust economies. In her feedback about the event, she said, “WiSER is a great initiative. Such forums help to connect women with a network of motivated individuals and a support system.” Another participant said that she was motivated by interacting with achievers in different fields of science, and she learnt through the event that she could balance her interest for science with family considerations. Rudra Pratap said he had come to educate himself on the issues faced by women and advised young women scientists to not try and fit in premeditated moulds but blaze an individual path. In conclusion, Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath echoed a common sentiment when she said that she hoped to see a day when there are no “women scientists” but just scientists.