India's science needs to be more inclusive

Shambhavi Naik*

doi:10.1038/nindia.2021.59 Published online 24 April 2021

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Despite recent gains such as the introduction of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 and the much applauded decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, the Indian society, traditionally built on binary notions of gender and sex, does not broadly reflect an inclusive fabric.

As a result, India's science ecosystem also continues to see a disproportionate representation of cisgender males (men whose assigned sex at birth is male). The lack of diversity in science, though not unique to the country, is complicated in India as most of the science is funded and run by the government.

Not just academia, but also editorial boards, recruitment committees, recipients and selection committees of prestigious awards and policymakers suffer from the problem of non-inclusion.

Baby steps are being taken in the private sector for gender inclusion – for instance, some private companies strive to achieve a 50% female workforce or have introduced menstrual leave. But in India's science this thrust on inclusion has to come from the government.

The diversity challenge

Gender-assigned roles – the “man” is the primary wage-earner and “woman” the primary caregiver – are a norm in patriarchal societies. Trail-blazing men and women have fought to break these stereotypes as more and more women balance careers and caregiving roles, and men actively share caregiving responsibilities. But the issue with deep-rooted patriarchal societies is not only limited to duties. They are founded on an incorrect notion of gender.

Genetic analysis has amply demonstrated that gender is not binary – instead it is fluid. So is sexual orientation, which has led to family units which may not always consist of a man and a woman.

For the first few decades, India's science and technology looked to create wealth, economic independence and technological self-reliance. In these early years, the inclusion of diversity was not one of its core tenets.

While this has changed in the past couple of decades, traditional systems and benchmarks created to suit a male-dominated industry are difficult to shrug off. A narrative change to gender inclusion has most recently been noted in the chapter on equity and gender inclusion in India’s Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020. Beyond this, however, concrete, focused policy changes have been few.

Funding opportunities for women on a career break have helped bring back some women into science, but closer monitoring is required to see whether this has led to their long-term retention in science. Recommendations from the Standing Committee for Promoting Women in Science constituted by the Department of Science and Technology in 2016 are yet to be implemented. A thorough understanding of the challenges faced by diverse communities is key to creating policies across the entire life of the scientist, not just during break points.

For example, systemic challenges such as age limits in faculty recruitment make it difficult for women to compete, while also raising a family. Unreasonable expectations of work timings – from 9 am to 9 pm, attending conferences during festivals or weekends – are problematic for all genders, but will likely impact women more.

Evidence shows that men tend to cite themselves and other men more than women, leading to a gender gap in citations. In a field, where networks and citations aid in finding jobs, publishing and winning grants, this is an inherent disadvantage for underrepresented groups.

These systemic challenges coupled with caregiving expectations can make a science career, with lack of job security, a difficult choice for a woman. This is most evident in two well-analysed and reported trends – women’s decreased participation with increasing household income, particularly in science, and dropping out after PhDs/postdocs with very few women advancing to become faculty members.

In summary, the opportunity cost for a woman to do science is much higher than that for a man. But it is easier than other groups, such as the LGBTQ communities.

The societal reproach and lack of recognition of LGBTQ community members makes their concerns more challenging to address. For example, India’s Assisted Reproductive Technology (Regulation) Bill, 2020 does not provide for members of the LGBTQ community to access assisted reproduction services. The rationale of its makers, India’s health and family welfare ministry, is that though homosexuality has been decriminalised, it has not been legalised. This seems to be a legal technicality and offers a signaling virtue to India's science in actively including all communities and leading a way to change – to create comfortable, safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ community.

Policy beyond the binary

The role of policy is to address these systemic issues and create incentives that lower the opportunity cost for diverse people to choose, stay and thrive in Indian science. Policy by itself cannot change India’s social fabric, but can definitely make science an attractive career option for those challenged by traditional norms of society.

But for this, we need to understand the fundamental challenges that diverse groups face. Data on this is not easy to get and perhaps the first policy change merits allocating funds to research the various aspects that keep diverse groups out of science. This data can feed into evidence-based policymaking. It is critical that such research be led by diverse teams.

India’s policy for gender inclusion has to centre around creating safe spaces for all communities on institutional campuses. This begins with infrastructural changes and formation of committees to address sexual and mental harassment, facilitating support groups and holding gender sensitization workshops. Discrimination of any nature – caste, age, social or educational background, gender, sexual orientation – should be abhorred in all policies. Similarly, pay parity is the least that can be ensured by institutional funding agencies.

Proactive policies, such as increasing leave for women commensurate with their need to deal with menstrual pain or something as devastating as a miscarriage, should be considered on an institutional basis. Policies around maternity and paternity leave can be revised to allow a new mother and father to adequately care for their young child. Increased paternity leave may be one way to incentivize a young mother to get back to work, knowing her child is being looked after by the father. Institutions could be provided maternity cover, to hire additional help during this time, and reducing the discrimination against women of a child-bearing age. These measures are relevant and should be applicable even in situations where the child is adopted.

In addition, a general increase in non-faculty permanent positions such as investigators, facility managers and laboratory managers, will help India's science attract more and diverse scientific potential. Recruitment committees for all positions also need to be diverse, to ensure there is no bias in hiring and to understand the challenges of applicants from specific communities.

However, the onus of inclusion does not fall only on the academia. It has to be ably supported by publishing houses mandating gender parity in citations, funding and award selection committees accounting for challenges faced by applicants, and creation of an equitable recognition structure.

At a community level, networks of community members, conferences and outreach activities to spotlight the work of diverse groups could be useful. Such efforts could also inspire younger people to take up science in India and demonstrate openness within the field.

India's science has to take up the mantle of gender inclusion in a long-term quest of social change. This will not only help our society, but the recruitment of talented scientists across the spectrum will enrich Indian science itself.

(*Head of Research, The Takshashila Institution, Bangalore, India)