Let's begin

It has only been three months that I joined an educational institute. Our small institute is located in south Bangalore in Electronic City where Indian corporate giants like Infosys and Wipro are also housed. Our institute has the mandate of conducting research in bioscience and related fields while at the same time providing a nurturing environment for students to flourish. Unlike other science institutions in our country, it maintains a healthy gender ratio among students. When asked, students speak enthusiastically of their careers and the varied professions they want to pursue.

But a cursory glance at the gender representation across esteemed institutes nationwide paint a picture in stark contrast to the aspirations of my students. Academic institutions in India almost without exception echo the same universal condition of under representation of women in tenured positions. Where are all these graduating women going? 

I have tried in the past to broach the topic of gender disparity with my peers. Their responses though varied broadly fall into two separate camps

  1. Receptive camp
  2. Not so receptive camp.

Members of the receptive camp, steadily growing in count, acknowledge gender disparity in science as a problem and in the least try to take an apologetic stance.

Members of camp b, interestingly claim that somehow a non-issue has been inflated beyond proportion and been presented as an issue. “Good Science” they angrily boast “knows no gender”.

"It is just as preposterous"

they posit as demanding an equal distribution of all sexual orientations in science. I have heard over and over again from my indignant colleagues, their faces locked in angry excitement, that scientific merit should be the only criterion in science and nothing else.   

In 2005, Larry Summers, the then president of Harvard, during one fine lunch talk wondered if among other reasons innate biological differences in men and women are to be blamed for women’s failure in holding tenure track positions. We have come a long way; hopefully Mr. Summers did too, but instances like these provide us with a template of our own intrinsic bias.

In 2012, researchers at Yale published an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences where the authors showed based on a randomised trial that hiring committees rate male applicants more favourably to their women counterparts with the same qualification. Interestingly or predictably perhaps that bias persists even among women recruiters.

Recently I came across a blog called BiasWatchNeuro  created by Yael Niv, a neuroscientist at Princeton and a few of her colleagues that track gender representation in Neuroscience conferences. The statistics that they collate give one a telltale sign of our implicit bias. “Good Science”, “Scientific merit” are just words residing in the subjective space of human thought and therein lies the problem.

What we think and how we feel and what meanings we attach to something are shaped by our reality and lived experience. How many of us can honesty deny that we live a reality of patriarchy?

I am sure over the years we will correct the wrongs of our time, some quickly some not so fast. How much time changing a custom will take can be anybodies guess. But one thing is for sure that unless we welcome a climate of awareness about our own intrinsic bias and recognise that everyone of us harbours the potential to be discriminatory towards others progress will be slow. So let’s begin. 

Sayak Mukherjee is a faculty at Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology. His broad interests are Mathematical Biology & Science Education and outreach, achieving diversity and inclusion in academia.