Participants in the sparsely attended Women’s Science Congress being held in Mumbai on the sidelines of the Indian Science Congress had an unusual demand: they wanted the event should be scrapped. At a panel called “Gender Discrimination in Science” on Monday, delegates explained that it was important to move towards a situation where women would be able to present papers at the much larger Indian Science Congress as easily as men.

“Why do we think we need to have this Women’s Science Congress?” asked Prajwal Sastri, an astrophysicist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, who spoke at the panel. “Issues of gender discrimination should be discussed at plenary sessions at conferences, not parallel ones at separate events.”

The four-year-old Women’s Science Congress is organised in parallel with the Indian Science Congress, the country's largest science convention. Like its older counterpart, the Children’s Science Congress, this conference is a hotchpotch of scientific papers presented either by women or about women’s issues. However, it lasts only two days, as opposed to the main Congress’s five-day span.

“It was only in this decade that people realised that issues about women in science are different and need attention,” Rohini Godbole, one of the country’s leading particle physicists, told “I look forward to the day when we don’t need a Women’s Science Congress.”

She added that there is a perception that gender equity in science is important only for women scientists. “But diversity is the root of all science," she said. "If it doesn’t include half of humanity, then it is science that also suffers.”

Not just family pressures

All panellists pointed out the huge gap between the number of women who studied science and the number of women who continued to work in the discipline. The reasons for the chasm might not just be family pressures, as is commonly assumed.

study by the Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Indian Academy of Sciences in 2010 showed that women who had research positions cited several organisational factors for dropping out. These included the lack of flexible timings, daycare facilities, accommodation and transport.

There is also a lack of support from men in the world of science.

Vineeta Bal, an immunologist at the National Institute of Immunology noted that several men attended the inaugural session of a National Conference of Women Scientists in 2008 in Delhi because it was inaugurated by Pratibha Patil, who was then President. After that, men formed only 2%-4% of participants at the convention.

That said, there some government measures to help women progress in science. The Department of Science and Technology has a Women Scientists Scheme to help women between the ages of 30 and 50 to return to research positions in laboratories. While this is an important scheme, it does not always have its intended consequences.

A scientist at the event who had benefitted from this scheme pointed out that after finishing her PhD at the age of 38 from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, gathering 12 years of experience and having published several single-authored papers in premier journals, she was still unable to find a teaching position. Now 50, she will have nowhere to go once she is no longer eligible for this scheme.

Despite the criticism of the event, Madhuri Pejaver, the organiser of this year’s Women’s Science Congress, maintained that it was still important.

“There is a need to showcase the work of women in different areas of science and technology,” she said. “Women are present in the fields of medicine, technology, environment, information communication technologies. But women will not discuss issues of health, even if they are separated. We need to change this.”

Moving ahead

Even as panelists critiqued the notion of a Women's Science Congress, they also welcomed the space it gave women.

“Platforms like this, if they exist, should be used to think about why women are not present in the sciences,” said Chayanika Shah, who has a PhD in Physics and teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “We need to go beyond the evidence that there are no women in science and see the steps that can take it forward.”

Around half of the audience at the inaugural session of the Indian Science Congress appeared to be female students. Yet few speakers at the various symposiums and plenary sessions were women.

This, Godbole said, made it even more important to have a forum to discuss how to improve the situation for women and build an infrastructure where these students would be welcomed when they moved into the space of research.

“At the biggest science show in the country, we must have people talking about this and build a system that will allow students to mature into scientist,” she said.