Can India Finally Find Its Marie Curie? | OZY

A new wave of female Indian scientists is breaking boundaries, paving the way for the next generation to challenge the patriarchy in science.

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Young Indian women in science have a fast-expanding set of role models.

When mathematician Neena Gupta became the youngest winner of India’s top science prize last year, the recognition came against the odds. The 35-year-old is only the 17th female winner of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology of the nearly 550 who have received the award over the years. But Gupta’s win was part of a broader shift that’s finally beginning to reshape the gender dynamics of India’s scientific community.

Globally, women have long been underrepresented in science. But Indian women have faced a steeper battle than others. They comprise only 15 percent to 20 percent of tenured faculty across research institutions and universities in India. That’s worse than some countries in the Middle East.

But a new wave of female Indian scientists is breaking boundaries, winning major national and global recognition and paving the way for future generations to challenge the patriarchy that has held them back. Manjula Reddy, chief scientist at Hyderabad’s Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, won the 2019 Infosys Prize for discovering critical steps of cell wall growth in bacteria, which could help to develop new classes of antibiotics. In 2019, medical research scientist Gagandeep Kang — a pioneer in the field of diarrheal infections — became the first Indian woman to be elected to the Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

The higher the ladder, the more women drop out.

Gagandeep Kang, who developed India’s first vaccine for rotavirus infections

Also in 2019, conservation scientist Krithi Karanth was given the Women of Discovery Award by WINGS WorldQuest, as well as the Rolex Award for Enterprise, becoming only the third Indian woman to become a Rolex laureate. And Gupta’s award was the latest in a series of prizes she has won for her solution to the Zariski Cancellation Problem, a source of intrigue in the field of algebraic geometry for mathematicians since 1949.

These scientists are building on a fast-expanding pool of women entering science in India as traditional gender norms weaken. But it’s also sheer passion that keeps them going, even in the face of stereotypes.

“I was always told that I come across as rude and aggressive, but I believe that’s what made it possible for me to move forward faster,” says Kang, 57, who is credited with creating Rotavac, India’s first indigenously developed vaccine for rotavirus infections.

To be sure, women in science have it worse than men in most countries. Only 35 percent of researchers at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research are women.

Neena Gupta

Mathematician Neena Gupta, 35, in 2019 became the youngest winner of India’s top science prize.

Source Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

But India’s beginning to catch up, and the churn is starting from university admissions. Women now for the first time form the majority of the postgraduate science student body. In 2015–16, women constituted 58 percent of students who enrolled for Master of Science degrees in the physical sciences, up from 50 percent in 2011–12. In biological sciences, where Indian women first made their move, they represented 67 percent of enrolled students in 2015–16.

That surge from the bottom, some researchers have argued, will ultimately lead to more women at the top too, where numbers remain skewed. Only 37 percent of those who enrolled for Ph.D. programs in the physical sciences in 2015–16 were female, although that’s up from 33 percent in 2011–12.

But that doesn’t make it simpler for women even after they’ve earned Ph.D.s. “Women completing their doctoral studies are usually around 30, at which point they take a break to settle down and build a family,” says Karanth, director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies. “This break of three to five years makes it much harder to get back into the field.”

The difference in enrollment rates between physical and biological sciences also points to perceptions that have long guided what are seen as fields of science women should — and should not — pursue. “Women are highly encouraged to pursue biology or chemistry, but not physics or mathematics,” says 30-year-old Madhurima Bhattacharjee, who recently completed her Ph.D. in gravitational physics from Baylor University. During her master’s at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, she was the only woman for a considerable time in her class, in keeping with the perception that physics — seen by many as a harder subject of study — should primarily be pursued by men.

Bhattacharjee also rues the lack of institutional support and opportunities compared to the West. “The field is so competitive in India, and there are very few institutions of higher study to even accommodate the number of people who want to be there,” she says.

2019_CWS_Natgeo_Sciencetelling Bootcamp_Krithi Karanth headshot-4

Conservation scientist Krithi Karanth.

Source CWS/Lorapro

Funding also largely remains “an old boys’ club,” says Kang, who serves as the executive director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad. “The higher the ladder, the more women drop out because everything gets progressively harder for them to do.” Public funding for scientific research goes exclusively to government institutions, making it harder for scientists working at private research labs to earn recognition for their work.

Karanth’s work on human-wildlife conflict has earned her global accolades. But in the wildlife conservation field, even over the past three decades, around 95 percent scientists were men. And while that’s changing, it’s still not 50-50, she says. A lack of adequate fellowships, programs and grants makes “pushing boundaries” hard, Karanth adds.

Gupta never faced family pressure to earn, and that enabled her to freely pursue mathematics, as opposed to medicine or engineering. “I am fortunate to have a supportive husband and in-laws,” she says, a luxury mostly not available to working women in India, let alone scientists.

Indian science also needs a broader upheaval that encourages collaboration across fields and a meeting of minds, say the scientists. Karanth’s most impactful work has been in conjunction with photographers, artists and filmmakers.  

Indian scientists also “need more female role models in the field,” says Bhattacharjee. That at least is finally changing, with the recognition that Gupta, Kang and others are receiving. It’s about time. “I think it is a social responsibility,” says Bhattacharjee, “to encourage women to appreciate the beauty of physics, because it is liberating.”