Women in Science

For the first time, three science journals are publishing special issues centred on women scientists

The editions feature articles on and by women in science, whose contributions to the field are under-represented.

For the first time since they were launched, three Indian scientific journals have published special women’s editions for March.

The issues of Current Science, launched in 1932, Physics News, dating back to 1970, and Resonance, which first came out in 1996, were planned keeping in mind the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11 and International Women’s Day on March 8.

The editions feature articles authored by women and were put together by four women from scientific institutions across the country to make a point.

“It is to demonstrate that women are as competent to write science articles that are accessible as [that of] men,” said Prajval Shashri of Resonance, a monthly science education journal published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. The special issue was released in mid-March.

Shastri, who is from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics at Bengaluru, has co-edited the issue with Sudeshna Mazumdar-Leighton of the department of botany at Delhi University. Shastri also guest-edited Physics News, the quarterly magazine of the Indian Physics Association, along with Bindu Bambah of the University of Hyderabad and Vandana Nanal of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

For the women’s issue of fortnightly research journal Current Science, the editors went a step further. Guest editors Sulabha Kulkarni from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, and Neelima Gupte from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, both physicists, wanted to focus on the work of women scientists under 45.

Kulkarni said that this time, they also broke with tradition by including brief profiles of the women scientists to accompany their research papers. This, she hopes, will help increase women’s representation in India’s premier science academies.

“The issue will be seen by senior scientists,” said Kulkarni. “They may follow the work of some of the women scientists and later, induct them in the science academies. The proportion of women fellows in the three science academies [Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru, Indian National Science Academy in Delhi and National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad] is about 4%.”

Few women contributors

So far, women have been all but missing from these journals’ usual lists of contributors “Over the last three years, the percentage of women contributors to Resonance was about 15%,” said Shastri who, with Mazumdar-Leighton, has been tracking the representation of women in scientific writing in recent years.

In Physics News, 10% articles were contributed by women in 2011 – the highest for the journal. Over the last two years, however, Shastri said, there were no such articles. Statistics for Current Science were not available but Gupte suspects the number of women contributors “would be even lower”.

Shastri pointed out the wide gap between women in science faculties of universities or elite research institutions and their representation among journal contributors. “The fraction of women in science faculties – trained PhD-holders in academia – is about 45%,” observed Shastri. “If that is the pool, why is that fraction not matched elsewhere?”

‘Below the radar’

There is no easy answer to that. For generations, women have seen the erasure of their contributions to science.

“Perhaps they mostly do not think of women when thinking of possible contributors,” said Shastri. “We have Newton’s laws and Einstein’s theory but in the case of Emmy Noether, I learnt the theorem – a foundational concept in physics – but not about her. That was not taught to me.”

For the special issue of Resonance, Shastri interviewed Melissa Franklin, the first woman to be tenured at Harvard University’s physics department in 1992. The biography section will feature Lise Meitner who, with long-time collaborator Otto Hahn, discovered nuclear fission in 1938. Only Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1944.

Women also tend to go unacknowledged in research collaborations. “In co-authored articles, women’s work is often not projected,” said Kulkarni. “If husband and wife work together, the husband gets priority. I have seen this happening. Consequently, young girls in science feel they are different.”

Gupte agreed. “If an article is written jointly by a man and a woman, the man will be given credit,” she said. “I know this from personal experience. Women are always below the radar.”

In the life-sciences, the gap may be slightly narrower but is present. “I do not think there is bias with getting work published,” said Leighton. “But in terms of recognition, being called an expert, awards and director or vice-chancellor positions, there may be discrimination.”

The latest Current Science issue, Kulkarni hoped, will “encourage young women scientists to come forward more”.

Smooth sailing

The scientists started discussing the idea of the special issues about a year ago. During discussions on starting a gender-in-physics working group (which was approved in February) within the Indian Physics Association, Kulkarni, who was on the editorial board of Current Science, suggested having an issue with contributions of women scientists. Similar issues were then planned for Resonance and Physics News.

Shastri sent proposals to the editorial boards which found ready acceptance and strong support. The guest-editors then set out to solicit articles from women scientists. “I had a long list of scientists as I had prepared for 20% - 30% to drop out, but very few did,” said Shastri.

Other editors had similar experiences. “We had a few drop out [for Current Science] but nothing more than the usual rate,” added Gupte.

Resonance, with a target audience of undergraduate and post-graduate students, will include pieces on the science of clouds, astrophysics, blackholes and water-pollution. Physics News, aimed as post-graduate researchers, will cover research on neutrinos, gravitational waves and x-ray-emitting stars. The regular research articles would be peer-reviewed as per the usual practice of these journals.

‘Worthwhile experiment’

Although some of the editors are considering making special issues an annual feature, they also hope such efforts will become unnecessary.

“It is a worthwhile experiment,” said Shastri. “My hope is we will not have to do this again and women authors will be featured as a matter of course.”

Special issues should not be another form of tokenism, they said. “It is about standing up and being counted,” said Leighton. “We do not want special consideration but recognition that we enjoy science as much as any man.”

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

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Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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