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Women in Science: A Contemporary Perspective

With Madame Curie, and other female stalwarts of science, being remembered almost every year on International Day of Women and Women in Science, it paints a picture that almost all is well now. But is it? 

I don’t remember the exact episode but I am sure it was Season 12 of The Big Bang Theory. So, in a particular episode, (spoiler alert!) after Sheldon and Amy received confirmation of their theory and were in the race for the Nobel prize, it was suggested by the experimental physicists that they could remove Amy from the race and share the Nobel between the three. And this was in spite of the fact that Amy was instrumental in proposing the theory. But what’s really worrying about this is that a) this was not a long time ago – 2019 and b) it is not painting a picture that is not in connection with real life.

Source: Hollywood Reporter

In this era, women are increasingly conquering and establishing their presence in fields never forayed into previously, with efforts that are pioneering, to say the least. This is particularly true in science, and especially research – a field that has been dominated by men historically. Across history, we can see various instances where women have endured unspeakable ‘ordeals’. Off the top of my head, the mother of Johannes Kepler was put through a ‘witchcraft’ trial – because she was taught to be a witch since her son dabbled in the sciences. Though a lot of time has passed and a lot of progress has been made now (ergo, there are no witchcraft trials now), there is still a lot of ground to cover – to make research more ‘inviting’ to women and draw female researchers to science. (Read also: A Woman like That Is Not a Woman, Quite: The Story of the Witch as a Feminist Allegory)

Currently, there are many challenges faced by women in research currently, and women, resilient as always, have also developed various coping mechanisms to handle it. First off, like everyone else, women also face work-related stress which are only augmented by the other factors involved – comfortable work environment, work hours etc. About half of female researchers feel that performance appraisal of their organizations are gender neutral and no disparity in pay – around half, the ‘progress’ we have achieved so far. Again, half of female researchers don’t have access to flexible working schedules and almost 70% work over-time – some with no extra benefits. One of the impacts of this was that women researchers find it difficult to spend time with their families. Three out of four women in the field know someone who left the field due to the issues in it – the biggest of which was sexual harassment. One-third of the community have reported – officially or otherwise – that they have experienced sexual harassment at their workplace and we can only speculate how many incidents have gone unsaid. In a nutshell, challenges faced by women researchers – hostile work environment, home-work balance, discrimination and harassment.

Now arises the question – how can we make it better? Being a part of the field myself, I set my mind to the task and came up with some ideas. First off, increasing visibility of women in science. This is because when more and more women are being recognized, the problems that women face will also be highlighted and a faster remedy to the problems under consideration. To curb sexual harassment faced by women, concrete steps need to be taken – the definition of harassment must be clearly outlined to prevent manipulative interpretations (like the HC’s take on ‘skin-to-skin’ contact) and they must be advertised intensively and the processes around harassment must be transparent and the judgments be stringent. Finally, more flexible work hours and a fair payscale for both men and women. These are some of the measures which make the field more accessible and comfortable for women – thus, throwing the doors of research open for women to walk in, leading the way for a more bright and glorious future. 

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Featured Image Credits: Culture Trip

Harish Neela Lingam

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