Imagine this: A room in the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, where a scientist is toiling away in the electrical engineering department. This scientist is trying to improve the performance of electronic devices. This scientist has also developed soil sensors that will help farmers to optimally use water resources to irrigate their land and won the Richard Feynman Award for a paper in a prestigious journal.
Did this description conjure up an image of an old man with a crazy hairdo, holding up test tubes and wearing a lab coat? If it did, you need to meet Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra, the women who started The Life of Science.
Jayaraj and Dogra, who are science writers, travel across the country to find real women who are engaged in science and tell the world about their backgrounds, struggles, and most importantly, their successes. “These are women who have broken through the patriarchal setup and going where their curiosity leads them”, Dogra says.
Jayaraj and Dogra combined the two things that they had in common – a passion for science communication and activism that works towards gender equality. As Dogra puts it, they want to break the myth that scientists are inaccessible super-humans who are out of the reach of other people. They also want to explore the problems that are faced by real Indian women who are part of this field, such as the electrical engineer mentioned at the beginning of this article. So far, they have interviewed 17 women who belong to fields as varied as microbiology, earth science, environmental biotechnology, and even climate change and disease research.
“There is a lot of speculation as to why there are so few women in Science because of reasons such as societal barriers, or family pressures. A lot of things have been said which are probably true”, says Jayaraj. The Life of Science (TLos) aims to go beyond speculation and arrive at conclusions based on real data from interviews.
Even though the duo has not experienced discrimination first hand, they have seen several instances of bias against women scientists. Whether it is at a conferences that have all-male panels or the lack of childcare facilities or nursing rooms in universities for professors who are mothers, the general lack of regard for women in science manifests itself in different ways. Jayaraj outlines the stage at which the problem seems to erupt; even though the number of women who take science at the undergraduate and postgraduate level is almost equal to the number of male applicants, these numbers fail to translate into the PhD or professional level. “My opinions are considered not such a big priority. Not just men, but even women tend to do this to each other”, says Dogra, who emphasises that the one thing that most women researchers want is to be heard without judgement.
Dogra explains that she and Jayaraj have two different ways of finding potential interviewees. While Jayaraj arranges interviews and pursues people who have been nominated, Dogra randomly travels to universities and looks for women who work in research departments.
So far, TLoS’ journey has been more or less smooth. Sometimes the nature of the scientists’ work is sensitive, such as the research performed by women working at the Baba Atomic Research Center, which makes it difficult to get an interview with them. In some rare circumstances, women have not been open to speaking to them, fearing tension and backlash at work. “Sexism is still seen as a very sensitive topic, and not everyone is open to speaking about it”, Jayaraj laments. Some might argue that such an attitude is undoing what TLoS is trying to achieve, but Jayaraj says that they want to respect the wishes of such women. She accepts that such decisions are no doubt challenging to take, but she and Dogra don’t want them to be targeted.
But perhaps the most nagging problem that Jayaraj and Dogra are facing is a dwindling amount of funds. Their savings are quickly running out, even though they have tried to minimise the costs of travelling as much as possible. They are hoping that people see the potential in their brainchild and invest in it over the next couple of months.
The impact that this project is generating greatly exceeds the hurdles it has had to face. The main takeaway of speaking to TLoS is that women scientists get a chance to tell their story to the world. Elizabeth V Mathew, an arachnologist who was featured in a blogpost in May, says that she received a lot of receive compliments and appreciation from family and colleagues alike. Dr. Radhika Nair, a cancer biologist, says that the essence of her journey in science was captured brilliantly and it made her friends and colleagues see her in a different light. Dogra says that many women today are not aware of their own strengths and abilities, and she hopes that an interview with TLoS helps them to better assert themselves.
Their educational background has enabled the two ladies at TLoS to make their project objective and allows them to make reliable, scientific conclusions. They prefer randomly approaching women rather than making lists of well-known achievers in the field and then interviewing them. This random sampling, Dogra says, allows them to get a real picture of the situation in the country. It will allow them to create a repository of information that is up-to-date. Being exposed the contrasting situations in backward towns and urban cities has allowed them to make an interesting conclusion; despite living and working in metros and being aware about gender inequality, a lot of women still don’t do much to fight sexism.
This scientific approach to their project has still not taken away from the more human side of the scientists’ stories, an integral aspect of this project that is embodied in its name. The stories talk about the methodology that the women use and how they go about their work, but they also provide a slice of their lives and their families. Jayaraj explains that even though family life is an important factor that women have to consider when planning their careers, a majority of them don’t think of it as a burden. These women are thankful for their supportive families, encouraging husbands and independent children.
Tracking down scientists and speaking to them has changed the way that the ladies at TLoS view working women’s issues and empowerment in general. Dogra says that previously, she looked at these interviews as stories to pursue. “But now that I have gotten under the skin of the problem, I’m thinking in a more solution-based manner about the paradigmatic changes needed to bring about gender equality”, she said. Jayaraj on the other hand realised that it is easy to make assumptions about the plight of women scientists from the outside – to be convinced that there is no hope for women or to assume that all men are misogynists – but such pessimism, however rooted in reality it may be, is a luxury that not all women can afford. Some of them are optimistic because it helps them to survive; we need to respect their choices and not nitpick every single thing they do. Being optimistic does not necessarily mean that they are not aware about their own plight; it just means that they have a coping mechanism that is different from yours.
For an increased awareness of the struggles and successes of women scientists in India, Jayaraj and Dogra hope that the stories and their findings will be translated into regional languages and will be published in local newspapers. They hope that this will make the dream of becoming a scientist and undertaking research seem less outlandish, since there are a sizeable number of women already pursuing such aspirations.
However, Jayaraj and Dogra have not limited their objectives to just raising awareness; in the long-term, they hope that the interviews and inferences from them can serve as the resources for policy changes or at least influence the way that women scientists are treated in India to some extent. They envision that the final goal of The Life of Science is to create a community of women scientists who can speak to each other, share experiences, and most importantly, collaborate. They opine that such fruitful collaborations will help to make Indian science original and put life back into a field of study that is suffering because 50% of its candidates don’t have access to the right opportunities.
The Life of Science is looking for donations as well as nominations for further interviews. Interested parties can contact them at [email protected], or visit their blog at https://thelifeofscience.com/.