Women might be breaching boardrooms and breaking glass ceilings, but when it comes to pursuing careers in science or technology, they seem to be encountering impenetrable brick walls. In 2013, the United Nations declared February 11 as International Day for Women and Girls in Science in order to raise awareness about the global lack of female representation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
Women have been attempting to make headway in STEM research in India, but the field is already fraught with a host of diverse difficulties. Although gender complicates access to resources, the facilities available to Indian scientists and researchers are woefully scarce to begin with. The cultural assumptions and social realities around scientific research in India have been summarised insightfully in Tapan Sinha’s unflinchingly honest Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990). The movie was inspired by the true story of Subhash Mukhopadhyay who was denied credit for his research in in-vitro fertilisation. The powerful performances by Pankaj Kapur, Shabana Azmi and Irrfan lend the narrative a bolstering layer of credibility.
After a decade of intense experiments conducted in a makeshift laboratory in his own home, Dipankar Roy (Kapur) invents a vaccine for leprosy. When he approaches his superiors with the news of his invention, they are confident that if such a vaccine were even a remote possibility, it would have already been invented in the west. This depiction of the casual and matter-of-fact acceptance of inferiority among Indian scientists is still relevant.
Amulya, a dedicated journalist (Irrfan), hastily breaks the news of the invention, hoping that the publicity will aid the progress of Roy’s work. Instead of being feted, Roy is vilified by government agencies, health professionals and his extended family. He struggles acquire timely permissions to conduct clinical trials. And when he ruffles too many political feathers, he is promptly transferred to a little village.
Roy’s work gets tangled in the complex web of bureaucracy and professional jealousy, and the ensuing delay allows a group of American doctors to be credited for the invention of a similar vaccine. Ek Doctor Ki Maut elaborates upon the many pitfalls that are created by a lethargic political administration and depicts the lack of infrastructural support to Indian scientists with heartbreaking insight.
It is eventually implied that a disillusioned and heartsick Roy continues his work abroad.
Roy is the archetypal obsessed scientist. Ensconced in his laboratory and prioritising his work above everything else, even a wife he loves very deeply, he is taciturn, undiplomatic and unsocial. His wife Seema (Shabana Azmi) is vocal about her frustration and hurt, but remains unflinchingly loyal. She tolerates her husband’s occasional neglect and condescension, even looking after his laboratory mice when he is unable to care for them. Like Seema, women have often made silent, unacknowledged and indirect contributions to scientific research.
Although Seema’s personal motivations are never explicitly stated, her intellect is amply evident. At the peak of her disgust with her husband’s self-absorption, she remarks that as a university graduate, she too could have chosen a flourishing career. Seema’s story resonates deeply with many Indian women who might be qualified but are unable to pursue careers in their chosen fields. For instance, a study reveals that although females constitute 20% of Indian engineering graduates, they form only 13% of the engineering workforce.
When Roy is panned because he refuses to ingratiate himself with influential doctors, Ek Doctor Ki Maut illustrates the indomitable sway of the old boys’ network. This overwhelmingly male-dominated nature of the powerful group of opinion leaders also perhaps explains the vicious cycle that leads to the paucity of women in STEM.
The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is a global issue. A study conducted across 14 countries reveals that while the probability of females graduating with a Bachelor’s and Masters’ degree in science-related fields are 18% and 8% respectively, the percentage of males is 37% and 18%. In India, only 39% of students engaged in STEM education are females, according to a study conducted by NGO Girls in Tech.
This lack of representation peters down into our cinema as well. A study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media reveals that female characters constituted only 8.3% of STEM professionals in popular Hindi films in 2014. Ditzy inventor Meeta (Parineeti Chopra) in Vinil Matthew’s Hasee Toh Phasee (2014) is a rare exception, but she is portrayed as a lovable and eccentric frump, furthering the notion that scientific inquiry is incompatible with feminine predilections.
The diverse and persistent complications faced by scientific researchers in India imply that we are miles away from a film which depicts a character – especially a female one – who simply happens to be a scientist.