Incentives for Indian women scientists ‘gathering dust’

Many women scientists in India face career barriers after marriage and motherhood Copyright: Flickr/interplast

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[NEW DELHI] A raft of incentives announced by India’s minister of science Kapil Sibal in March to help Indian women scientists pursue research careers after marriage and motherhood are gathering dust, say top women scientists.

These include a key proposal to offer flexible working hours for women with children up to three years of age, which was turned down by the Indian Cabinet, said Vineeta Bal, member of a government task force on women in science, last week (1 November). She was speaking at a symposium organised by the Indian Academy of Sciences as part of its 74th annual meeting in New Delhi.

Directors of several key scientific institutes have not followed up on any of the other government recommendations such as setting up crèches in institutes or offering feedback on recruitment of women scientists to senior positions. "Apathy is a big problem," Bal noted.

She said that despite some improvements — particularly the Department of Science and Technology’s scheme to allow married women scientists to pursue research careers after a break — women scientists still face many unaddressed problems.

For example, women scientists in northeast India — an area prone to civil violence by insurgent groups — face the problem of safety; while strong patriarchal attitudes in the southern state of Kerala are a major hurdle in the progress of women scientists.

Saman Habib, a researcher at the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, points out that India’s scientific community still needs to be sensitised towards subtle and overt discrimination and harassment at workplaces. "A gender sensitisation programme should be made compulsory at all scientific institutes, as well as a support system for women who want to bring out harassment issues in public," she suggests.

Rohini Godbole, professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, says the Indian Academy of Science initiated a national survey — which is still recruiting participants — in 2007 to identify the extent of loss of women scientists in research and the factors responsible for drop-outs. "[The] loss of trained women scientists is also a loss to science," she says.