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International Summit on Women in STEM: A Report

Zill-e-Anam

The International Summit on Women in STEM -“Visualizing the Future: New Skylines” was organized in January this year by the Department of Biotechnology and International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). The following is a report by Zill e Anam, a young scientist who had a ring-side view of the proceedings.

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On 23 – 24 January 2020, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, saw an amalgamation of women who have excelled in various STEM fields as well as those looking forward to building careers in STEM. These were the attendees of the International Summit on Women in STEM, a two-day summit organized by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, and International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB).

Divided into several sessions (discussions, talks and poster), the summit addressed issues women in STEM face, ways to boost their careers and build a dynamic action plan, and recommendations for nurturing future leaders. Here is a brief overview of the discussions and the conclusions that emerged.

Inaugural Session

The summit began with a welcome address by Meenakshi Munshi (DBT) and Dinkar M Salunke (ICGEB) emphasizing the issues women in STEM face and the need to talk about them. Ashutosh Sharma (Department of Science and Technology (DST)) addressed the gathering saying that since knowledge and information do not discriminate based on gender, we shouldn’t either. Sharma highlighted DST’s initiative Vigyan Jyoti that encourages rural girls to take up STEM career paths. 

Calling the summit a galaxy of women achievers, Chandrima Shaha (National Institute of Immunology (NII) and Indian National Science Academy (INSA)) talked about reinventing academics and the dire need of women-friendly work environments. Renu Swarup (DBT) discussed the motivation behind the summit and pointed out that it is more important to give women opportunities than reservations. Manju Sharma (DBT) emphasized the necessity of making STEM more women-inclusive via conscious effort, transparency in awards and leadership roles, and commitment at the highest level.

The Guest of Honour, Glenda Grey (South African Medical Research Council), discussed how senior women at leadership positions are more vulnerable as compared to men. Bias, stereotyping, lack of flexible work arrangement are some more roadblocks for women in STEM, suggested Harinder Sidhu, Australian High Commissioner to India, in her inaugural address. 

Session 1: Women in STEM: Activities in different nations

Speakers: Pramila Acharya Rijjal (South Asian Women Development Forum (SAWDF), Nepal), Mariam Shakeela (Maldives Women’s Chamber of Commerce; SAWDF, Maldives), Sachie Panawala (Coordinating Secretariat of Science Technology & Innovation, Sri Lanka), Suraksha S. Diwan (DBT), Tania Friederichs (Delegation of the European Union to India, EU)

Chair: Jitendra Khurana (INSA)

This panel brought together representatives from SAWDF member countries and the European Union who discussed STEM activities in their nations. The presentations highlighted innovative steps taken to empower women in STEM. For example, simply asking Why are there no women on the panel?” can emphasize the need for gender-balanced panels. The panellists suggested that in the case of proposals with equal merit, the one with more women investigators can be given preference. It was concluded that since most issues women in STEM face are common across countries, learning from each other and applying an integrated approach is the way forward.

Session 2: Building Leadership

Speakers: Simon Kay (Wellcome Trust, UK), Gagandeep Kang (Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad), Sandhya S Visweswariah (Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru), Sourav Pal (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata), Vibha Dhawan (The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi)

Chair: Simon Kay (Wellcome Trust, UK)

This interactive session on building leadership came to an unequivocal consensus about men receiving more mentorship than women. Formal institutional mentoring programs were suggested as a way to help mentees and mentors understand the meaning of mentorship and equip senior researchers with good mentorship skills that they may presently lack. Mentors act as a support system for dealing with mid-career challenges wherein women are more likely to drop out due to family responsibilities. Promoting working from home and building better on-site child care facilities can encourage women not to take career breaks. 

Women also face patriarchal beliefs and bias which impact their participation in STEM. For example, many men are still not comfortable taking orders from women. Despite the existence of child-care leave for men in many places, it often remains unused. The present measures and expectations of scientific success have been laid down by men over the years and lack perspective from women. This can be improved by having gender-balanced leadership teams. Support networks can be a powerful force to ensure that women are not left out. In summation, women need proactive help for entering more leadership roles.

Session 3: My life my science: Women leaders in STEM

Speakers: Wendy Harwood (John Innes Centre, Norwich), Purnima Jalihal (National Institute of Ocean Technology, Chennai), Shobhona Sharma (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai), Ellora Sen (National Brain Research Center, New Delhi), Sabhyata Bhatia (National Institute of Plant Genome Research, New Delhi), Shobhana Narsimhan (Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru)

Chair: Chandrima Shaha (INSA)

This panel discussed the internal challenges women everywhere face while striving for excellence. From struggling to be taken seriously by male colleagues to not having access to toilets while on field projects, the challenges are diverse. Collaborating for field studies and sample collection can help in some cases. The panellists suggested that the credibility and ownership of work can be enhanced by women scientists by using I’ rather than we’ while presenting their work. Informal networking opportunities and sisterhood in science can do wonders in making research culture healthy and inclusive. At an individual level, however, one should not be afraid to ask for what one needs.

Session 4: Career perspectives: thinking beyond boundaries

Speakers: Preetha Rajaraman (US Health Attaché, New Delhi), Savita Ayyar (Jaquaranda Tree Consulting, Bengaluru), Swati Subodh (1 Million for 1 Billion and CSO, India Health Fund, New Delhi), Smita Jain (IndiaBioscience, Bengaluru), Samina Bano (Right Walk Foundation, Lucknow).

Chair: Shahid Jameel (Wellcome Trust/​DBT India Alliance, New Delhi)

The panellists in this session highlighted the immense opportunities open for STEM graduates apart from the conventional research and academic roles. While pursuing their degrees, STEM graduates learn skills like logically approaching a problem, making sense out of data, seeking peer-review by opening oneself up, being receptive to feedback, good communication and negotiation skills etc. These can be applied across fields opening up avenues for those who do not wish to be involved in active bench research. The panellists suggested that it is crucial not to restrict oneself and be open to new ideas. Having clarity on what one does not want in life helps in navigating career paths, even if one does not clearly know what one wants. 

Session 4: Influence of changing world and scientific communication

Speakers: Jahnavi Phalkey (Science Gallery, Bengaluru), Karishma Kaushik (Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, University of Pune, Pune), B. Chagun Basha (Office of Principal Scientific Adviser, New Delhi), Kalika Bali (Microsoft Research, Bengaluru)

Chair: Subhra Priyadarshini (Nature India, New Delhi)

The panel highlighted the need to transform professional authority that science gives to cultural authority. In other words, the general public must be included in the process of communicating science and made aware of science in and around their lives, so that it does not remain limited within our professional boundaries. Due to closed scientific environments and the absence of avenues for interaction with scientists, there is no natural way to create a dialogue in the public domain. Active engagement of scientists through social media platforms can help in promoting such interactions and breaking barriers. Social media can also help in building the impact of one’s research and science in general. In some cases, virtual mentors have resulted in career-changing experiences. However, social media should always be used with caution as misquoting by the media is common.

The panel also emphasized that in addition to sharing one’s own research stories, it is equally important to react to fake stories. Communicating about the process of doing science, the challenges or rewards of life as a researcher etc, and not just research results per se can also help in making people aware of what goes into making good science. For communicating science to the policymakers, evidence-based strategies along with actively training people can help. 

Session 5: Transforming India: Women in Entrepreneurship

Speakers: Lakshmi Devi (Centre for Entrepreneurship and Career Oriented Program, University of Delhi), Sanghamitra Mobassarah Nusrat Jahan (CyCa Ocosolutions, Odisha), K. Rajeshwari (Bioklone, Chennai), Hema Annamalai (Ampere Vehicles Pvt. Ltd.)

Chair: Deepanwita Chattopadhyay (IKP Knowledge Park, Hyderabad)

In this panel, women entrepreneurs shared their personal journeys of starting their own ventures. K. Rajeshwari, founder of Bioklone, successfully applied the technical expertise of hybridoma technology that she learnt in her post-doctoral research to establish a custom antibody services company. Hema Annamalai, founder of Ampere Vehicles Pvt. Ltd. stressed on the need to create a robust proof-of-concept which can help in successful validation and scale-up. The panellists agreed that a combination of opportunities, resources, the right enabling system, and learning the science behind business and business behind science contributes to a successful entrepreneurship firm. Inspiring the younger generation, the common message that came out of the discussion was If I can do it, you can do it too.’

Session 6: The future of women in STEM: Policies for enhancing diversity in STEM fields

Speakers: Shirley Jayawardena (Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industries Central Province, Sri Lanka), Atya Kapley (Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World), Rupamanjari Ghosh (Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida), Vinita Sharma (DST), Millicent Liani (Centre for Capacity Research, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom), Melanie Welham (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, United Kingdom)

Chair: Renu Swarup (DBT, New Delhi)

Co-Chair: Rohini Godbole (IISc, Bengaluru)

The summit was concluded with a panel on policies for enhancing diversity in STEM. The panellists suggested that the right approach should focus more on the refinement of policies based on learnings from the past rather than building new ones. In order to ensure that there is minimal or no career break for women, policies that promote flexible and supportive institutional environments should be in place. Taking an affirmative approach like simply changing nomenclature from maternity leave’ to family leave’ (available to both partners) can be the initial step. 

Ranking institutions based on gender representation can also help in changing the perspective from individual support to institutional support. Changing the sample composition for business products and drug testing by having equal representation of females will also help in bringing gender neutrality. Women in STEM have to be linked to the economic growth of the country in order to ensure a cumulative and wider change. A pan-India survey to collect primary data of the number of women at various levels in STEM fields, as well as one to investigate the root causes of low female representation, were also suggested by this panel. 


Author’s note: As a young Indian woman in science, I found the summit an affirmative platform to engage and network. It allowed me to ask questions and discuss ideas with people whose work I have been reading and following. I reconnected with my undergraduate, postgraduate teachers and friends, returning with positivity, hope and wisdom.

Written By

Zill-e-Anam is currently pursuing her PhD in Directed Evolution and Codon Shuffling from Special Centre for Molecular Medicine, JNU, New Delhi. She loves to juggle between pipettes, proteins and laptop keypad. Though science communication she aims to give back to …