Columns Opinion

One possible plug for the leaky pipeline

Shubha Tole

In my opinion piece Scientist and Mommy“http://​www​.indi​a​bio​science​.org/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​s​h​u​b​h​a​-tole… in 2009, I open with the following:

At one point I thought of myself as a scientist who also happened to be a woman. At the end of four long-gestation projects that ran crazily overlapping with each other, two resulting in boys now aged 4 and 7, and the other two resulting in publications in Science and Nature Neuroscience, its very clear that I’ve traveled a road only women scientists” get to navigate”

I had my two children when I was 35 and 38, approximately 3 years after starting my lab at TIFR. One key element of being able to balance the multiple demands on my time and brainspace was the decision my husband and I took in terms of using our financial resources. We paid our nanny Rajkumari (described in my Scientist and Mommy piece) a well-deserved salary equal to the highest pay for a similar job in our colony, with appropriate annual increases. In addition, we built in redundancy by having our children enrolled in the childcare center (CCC) for their minimum time slot. This gave us the luxury of extending their hours if the nanny was sick, or just gave her a couple of hours time to get errands or chores done while the kids played with their friends in the CCC. This arrangement continues even today, my boys aged 9 and 6 are signed up for the Saturday morning slot at the CCC which gives them the benefits of emergency extra hours. Naturally this comes at some financial cost. But the backup arrangement it provides has stood us in good stead especially since both of us have complicated scientific-conference-travel schedules. 

All of this has of course affected our savings, but this was a joint decision that we had no hesitation in making. Not all women scientists may have the financial freedom to ensure dependable childcare. Our waiting to have kids until we were settled in our careers also had the benefit of higher salaries to support the increased expenses. Many women may not wait as long to have children. Yet the ability to pay for and retain good childcare was, in my opinion, the single most important factor in my being able to pursue my science without compromise.

Therefore, when I was put on a committee in 2009 to reform the competitive grant system of DBT I suggested a childcare allowance” for women postdocs and PIs so that their childcare expenses could be met in a manner de-linked from their salaries. This allowance, I proposed, should only be usable for childcare in some form- nanny, daycare center, playschool. By not adding this allowance to the regular salary, a woman scientist would be able to make childcare decisions free of the guilt factor” that plagues us all, or the temptation to save the money for other things. This would encourage higher quality and consistency of childcare, the two issues that women in science struggle with then they have to be traded off against the cost factor. 

The committee, chaired by Prof. Shahid Jameel (ICGEB) was unanimous in its support, and our recommendations were forwarded to the DBT. Specifically, we recommended a monthly allowance of the order of Rs. 5000 (this was in 2009, to be revised upwards periodically), per child under the age of 3, upto a max of 2 children. In particular, we felt it is important that post-doctoral researchers be eligible. We hoped that this scheme will lead to both retention of post-doctoral women in science, as well as help women scientists balance the demands of the lab and the family, both of which peak, on average, during the critical post-doctoral years or the early years of setting up a lab.

The DBT is considering our recommendations and hopefully these will be incorporated in some fashion. But meanwhile, I encourage Institutions to initiate something similar using discretionary funds. The quantum of money is not large in the big picture of things. But if it helps retain women postdocs and PIs in science at this crucial point in the leaky pipeline, it will reap rich dividends.

Written By

Shubha Tole is a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. Her seminal contributions to understanding how the brain develops in the early embryo have been recognised by prestigious awards such as the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award and the Infosys Prize. Prof. Tole leverages her experience as a mentor, policy-maker and senior scientist to actively engage in science outreach that inspires younger scientists and is a vocal advocate for women in science and of mental health awareness in academia.