Embedded patriarchy in science must end

Albert Einstein with his wife Mileva Marić.
Albert Einstein with his wife Mileva Marić.

Two years of #MeToo have changed little in the world of scientific research, according to most women in science across the world. India has 43% of women as science graduates—the highest number in the world—but a mere 14% in science-related jobs. Despite the additional push the present government has provided since 2017, in which the Department of Science and Technology was provided Rs 2,000 crore to encourage more girls into science-related careers, the picture remains grim. Gender inequity, subtle discrimination, indifference, workplace derision and isolation have kept women in India out of the job market that matches their science training. This has serious challenges for the country’s developmental ambitions. As a McKinsey research report of 2020 emphasised, narrowing gender gaps in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can lead to an increase of $12 trillion to $28 trillion in the global economy. Does this sound an alert for decision making bodies of science and the NITI Aayog?

In developed countries such as Sweden, women science graduates are much less than India, at 35% only, but 34 % of them get placements in STEM jobs. The lack of women in these jobs reflects gravely on India’s science policy as only one woman out of 41 men has been able to reach the position of an office bearer in 86 years of the existence of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA). This marginalization further unfolds in the shortlist for the INSA awards, which have so far gone to only 14 women as compared to 501 men. The situation is appallingly unfavourable towards women in other top science awards too, such as the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award which has been bestowed on only 16 women against 500 men beneficiaries. It appears that patriarchy rules most science academies across the world even if women are fortunate to obtain a STEM job, since globally only 12% women are represented in 69 science academies across the world.

India’s developmental dreams may have to crash land over an utterly deficient terrain if women in engineering and technology, despite holding a 50% share of undergraduate degrees, fail to get absorbed into appropriate jobs. As a consequence, many switch to non-science jobs or become homemakers—recent situations show that more than 49% women in science are ready to switch to other jobs which they would have otherwise rejected. The irony of the STEM job market is that it has the potential of creating 10.5 million additional jobs, if countries can promote gender equality, as was suggested by a report by the European Union. Most new fields in science such as artificial intelligence (AI) and big data are currently completely male-dominated with a pathetic 10-15% jobs going to women in top companies like Google and Facebook.

Science, to be appropriate, should be able to absorb dynamic social relationships from the living and non-living or everything around it. Women have proved to be more perceptible and transdisciplinary in their approach than men with similar training. Traditional societies which were hierarchical, orthodox, fatalistic and believed in supernatural forces offered little space for modern science to flourish. Yet when modern science came, it also became a source of immense power which was soon captured by men. Modern science advanced through state power and started distancing itself from a holistic social relevance, inadvertently falling into a trap of increased productivity and control which the industrial revolution brought about.

Minnie Vaid’s book on the role of women space scientists in the Mangalyaan mission exposes an embedded gender bias that pushes women out of key positions where they can perform better than their fellow men. Nonetheless, this bias can also help analyse an unanswered question that most students in social science classrooms are perplexed about: why did Einstein win the Nobel Prize when his invention destroyed the world? Did Einstein know what could happen when his invented genie would be released from the laboratory to a wider and ever-advancing world of power aggrandizement?

The nature of science is founded on a matrix of human disconnect, and after reading an interesting Paul Halpern’s science narrative from 2015, titled Einstein’s Dice and Schrodinger’s Cat: How the Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics,the fact reveals, to our dismay, that scientists give much greater priority to winning the right scientific algorithm than the world around them. These power pathways of science have ignored many achievements by women who fed and fuelled these discoveries within the fortresses of labs. This was a terrain where questions on social conscience were never ever asked.

This does not mean that all scientists are directly influenced by dominant interests as many are also instructed by their own or their society’s cultural framework which is embedded in their individual morality, values, beliefs and community ethics. An example is the case of Joseph Rotblat who withdrew from the Manhattan Project in 1939 for he firmly believed that such weapons of mass destruction should be avoided due to their catastrophic impact upon humanity. He preferred to receive a Nobel Prize for Peace rather than for Physics which was awarded to his number two scientist, Einstein. However, the most astounding is the revelation about Einstein’s wife, Mileva Marić, who, despite being a classmate of Einstein with an equal or even stronger disciplinary training in physics, was not acknowledged for her influence and contribution to Einstein’s achievement. A 2019 book Einstein’s Wife, written by Allen Esterson and David C. Cassidy, with Ruth Lewin Sime, presents an evidence-based history of Marić’s life with Einstein. Science historians have repeatedly established that Marićs ideas were central to Einstein’s science but while her pregnancy, childbirths and divorce gradually weakened her relationship with science, Einstein marched ahead to the Nobel Prize. 

Another astounding case is that of Henrietta Leavitt who in 1900 joined the Harvard College Observatory as an assistant for Edward Pickering. There were some far-reaching astronomical revelations which were observed and discovered by her. One such observation was that slower-moving stars were more luminous through which the size of the galaxy and much more on the study of variable stars could have been discovered. She paved the way for modern astronomy. enabling scientists to measure the universe. Edwin Hubble, the American astronomer, became famous by using Leavitt’s ground-breaking research and he also admitted that it was she who deserved the Nobel Prize. But Levitt watched all this as a silent worker at the laboratory, where she was paid half of what her fellow men researchers got ($10.5 a week) and did not raise an alarm when Pickering published her findings without giving her due credit.

The laboratory’s new director Harlow Shapely also used her work without acknowledging her phenomenal contribution. The patriarchal culture in science of keeping women out of mainstream publications and awards has been so strong that the world has wasted many years seeing men scientists reach milestones which had already been achieved by women much earlier. Leavitt’s work was interrupted by her family obligations and her early death by stomach cancer ended the tragic and continuous marginalisation she suffered because of her powerful male colleagues.

The world of science has not changed much. Most laboratories belong to men scientists who continue to control them even after they are transferred, retire or are thrown into disrepute through charges of corruption or sexual harassment. Women scientists, on the other hand, are made to leave their laboratories immediately when they retire or are transferred, notwithstanding that their ongoing research might prove a great contribution to society. From life sciences to physical, environmental and geophysical sciences, a woman’s journey is gripped by obstructions and gendered ostracism. From Muthuswamy to Swaminathan, some leading women scientists—the ones who led the ICMR towards an accountable bioethical journey or silently brought out key cancer research findings in the biochemistry lab at AIIMS while taking care of her ailing father or dedicated herself to set up the Brain Research Institute at Manesar—have definitely not received their due despite their services being of utmost importance to the progress of India. The country needs to look for more of them in the IITs, CSIR, INSA, ICMR, AIIMS and other science institutes for more holistic progress of science. Why should one hear science policy talk only from male scientists, who are now also controlling NITI Aayog as well as the TV channels?

Unless the needs, capacities and acceptability patterns for women are absorbed in the behaviour of decision makers, the road to gender equity in science would remain bumpy and hazardous. Science shapes society and women in science break stereotypical frames of research, bringing acceptable solutions to the problems of development and acting as catalysts for change and progress.

The writer is president, NAPSIPAG Disaster Research Group, and former Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The views expressed are personal.