G.V.Shivashankar (1) & Linda J. Kenney (1,2)

Women in Science: Is India losing out?

Traditionally, as dictated by societal structure, Indian daughters were encouraged to be married at a young age. Without strong family support, this usually left little possibility for a large fraction of Indian women to pursue scientific careers. This is primarily due to the fact that academic research requires a much longer time to obtain a Ph.D. degree and usually involves subsequent post-doctoral research experience. Recent years have seen a tremendous influx of resources for pursuing higher education in India. This has rightly enabled a large fraction of middle class families to send their children for higher studies either in India or abroad.

The outcome of this influx is that we now have a larger number of female students at the Ph.D. and postdoctoral level pursuing active research in India and abroad. That is the good news. However, a worrisome phenomenon is emerging. Although parents have enabled their daughters to participate in Ph.D. programs, they often discourage them from further pursuing their career. This could be primarily because the societal pressure along with parental concerns leads parents into believing that “marriage and settlement” will be harder for a daughter with a higher education and at a more advanced age.  

This is unfortunate, as with the right post-doctoral research experience, these young women could pursue very active academic careers. They would by then know how to balance their professional and personal lives well. Why then is there this social imbalance? Why are parents discouraging their daughters from taking the paths to a career in science? This is a major issue concerning a large fraction of female Ph.D. and postdoctoral researchers as they face this pressure of “marriage and settlement" from parents. We have now witnessed, in our labs and institutes both in India and abroad, a number of our students and post-docs going through this struggle. A larger number of female students in recent years report that this is a crucial factor in deciding their scientific career paths. Initiating and sustaining a strong research program is a major challenge, and this added parental pressure on our female scholars will only make them turn away from careers that they dream of pursuing. This is even more important at a crucial time in Indian scientific history, when we have many more resources to expand Indian Science.

NUS women in Science initiative group photoA part of the solution can be to educate parents about the way science works. Together, we need to take an active part in engaging society to discuss the rewards of nurturing the next generation of scientists. This should include active discussions between students, their families and their mentors. There are many attempts to address this issue and others affecting women in institutes around the world, for example, Mechanobiology Institute Women in Science program (MBI-WIS) at the National University of Singapore ( http://mbi.nus.edu.sg/resources/mbi-women-in-science). This program aims to affect change in attitudes and approaches through seminars, discussions and networking. Similar initiatives set up in India could discuss issues like ensuring stronger support from families to promote vibrant academic careers for women in science in India.



1Mechanobiology Institute & Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore

2Department of Microbiology & Immunology, University of Illinois, Chicago, USA

E-mails: shiva.gvs@gmail.com, kenneyl@uic.edu

Weblink: http://mbi.nus.edu.sg

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