21 - 02 - 2019

Women haven’t reached centre stage yet

THE fact that women have made their mark in every walk of life is substantiated by statistics. Girls outnumber boys in educational institutions. During convocations and annual functions, girls bag a chunk of the medals and prizes.

The visibility of girls as students and women as teachers has increased tremendously during the past few years in various educational institutions, giving the impression that we have achieved gender parity. But there is a flip side too. While women are visible in great numbers as students and teachers not only in schools and colleges, but also in universities, they are conspicuous by their absence at places that really matter. 

For instance, it is a common sight to have many women students, research scholars and faculty members at inaugural functions of prestigious universities, performing different tasks. They appear to be in charge, getting the venue ready for the grand event, welcoming the dignitaries and so on. But as the function begins, invariably the situation gets reversed. The most important guests take their seats on the dais, all men, with not even a single woman occupying the most important space in the event. Where do all the women disappear? They can be seen backstage, overseeing arrangements for the smooth conduct of the programme. A woman professor would eloquently and confidently be conducting the stage as a compere, though she would go behind the curtain after making the announcements. With an astonishing command over the language, her job is only to introduce the speakers and thank them. Incidentally, none of them feels the need to thank her for making them appear so important.

Yes, women are more visible today, but only to offer bouquets to the male dignitaries, after which they disappear backstage. They reappear with a tray and a candle for the lamp-lighting ceremony, or look after hospitality, while men are busy making their presence felt in the academic circles. The whole event is organised by women, perfect to the minute details, and they are present everywhere, except at the centre stage, by and large occupied by men. That women are missing from the seats of power is corroborated extensively on such occasions. 

Although there has been an increase in the number of women aspirants in research in the recent past, the percentage of women scientists holding top positions in this field is very low. A cursory analysis of the chief editors of top research journals reveals the dominance of male scientists. The share of female scientists in academic societies is also negligible. The persistent and subtle forms of gender discrimination and bias in the fields of science and research have been brought out by Jo Handelsman in her study, confirming that faculty members in science of both genders showed gender bias primarily at a subconscious level. In this study, the researchers asked more than 100 professors of biology, chemistry and physics in six universities of the US to evaluate CVs of two fictitious college students, with a male and a female name each, for the job of laboratory manager. Even though both students had identical CVs, the professors agreed to offer $3,730 (around Rs 2.65 lakh) less per year to ‘Jennifer’ than ‘John’. Further, they showed a greater willingness to be mentors for ‘John’.

In a report published by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), the number of women enrolled for higher studies in universities and women scientists recruited in major government institutes such as CSIR, ICAR, IISc, Jawaharlal Nehru University and University of Hyderabad was analysed. It was found that although there was a rise in the number of women pursuing higher education, the gender gap persisted. The number of women employed in federal government organisations, both at the scientific and technical levels, was below 15 per cent. The presence of women on advisory committees of institutes was very low.

Julie Des Jardins, in her book The Madame Curie Complex, has presented a comparison between the lives of male and female scientists in order to understand the relationship between gender and science as a profession. She studied the lives of Jane Goodall, Rosalyn Yalow, Barbara McClintock, Rachel Carson, Rosalind Franklin and the women participants of the Manhattan Project. She also presented a comparison between the lives of these scientists with those of Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi and showed how the working style, methods of work and work experience tend to vary between male and female scientists, mainly as a consequence of gender socialisation. While women tend to have limited access to professional training and resources and suffer exclusion from professional and social networks largely dominated by men, they still have made an enormous contribution to science and scientific knowledge. She demonstrates that the questions posed, the methods used and explanations offered tend to vary between women and men scientists, indicating the gendered culture of science. In a study conducted in Sweden, it was found that women applicants had to score 2.5 times higher on an index of publication impact than the male ones to be judged on a par. 

How do women take it? Generally, there is a clearly defined gender division of labour at the workplace, government as well as private/corporate. Women, too, take these unimportant and subordinate roles unquestioningly. If women’s empowerment really means greater participation in the decision-making process, how can they be empowered unless they share equal spaces with men where most of the decisions are made? Unfortunately, women themselves have not realised it so far. It is important that they at least start negotiating for greater visibility on the centre stage, where real decisions are made, where the power game is played and where professional networking takes place, rather than feeling on top of the world as facilitators or backstage supervisors.


Rajesh Gill