Women and Science in India: A Reader

Suroopa Mukherjee finds questions of gender and research in India are addressed, but not answered

July 16, 2009

Women and Science in India is an important book. Its main focus is on gender and science in the Indian context. Since little work has been done in this area, the idea of a Reader, which can dip into eclectic fields including psychology, history, sociology and cultural studies, is useful. It is meant to cater to the interests of scholars from different disciplines and policymakers.

It begins with the premise that gender discrimination is widespread in prestigious scientific institutions across India.

Women have historically been excluded from knowledge generation and dissemination. So the first section of the anthology takes us back to colonial debates on white women's access to the practice of medicine in British India. It then shifts to the post-colonial situation under the rubric of "Contemporary experiences", thus drawing attention to an important critical approach in the book. We are told that data on women scientists are scarce. So a "subjective approach" has been used to draw attention to "perceptions of work and the social environment".

In the historical section, Geraldine Forbes, Antoinette Burton and Maneesha Lal use case studies, excerpts from interviews and personal memoirs. Similarly, interviews, schedules and questionnaires are used to present the current situation. Carol Mukhopadhyay throws in a word of caution about the applicability of Western theories on gendered science in a strictly Indian context. The reader is invited to listen to non-Western voices from the scientific field.

However, the anecdotal style tends to get repetitive and the book's introduction is too sketchy to give a powerful overview on the dynamics of social exclusion and the way statistics fail to prove the hypothesis that women lack scientific aptitude. Abha Sur points to the anomaly and others echo her idea. But the focus in most of the essays is on what Mukhopadhyay identifies as the "macrostructural characteristics of Indian society" with special emphasis on cultural difference. Perhaps the perceived need was to open up more areas of debate.

Lalitha Subrahmanyan's essay "Women and Science in India: has feminism passed them by?" poses an interesting question. She draws a grim picture of women scientists in a university department, who form a privileged minority. Malathy and P. Duraisamy talk of women's participation in technical education and the labour markets, and Alpana Sagar brings in gender and class discrimination in the field of medicine by expanding the discourse beyond doctors to include other sectors in medical care. However, vital areas are neglected. For instance, issues of ecology, science and development are mentioned, without becoming full-length essays.

Veena Poonacha draws attention to the vital aspect of science policies and its impact on educational practice. In her essay, she gets to the crux of the problem. She writes: "An examination of policy statements reveals some of the underlying assumptions ... that development of science and technology is the necessary solution to all the problems of the country, ranging from unemployment to poverty, population to environmental degradation ... When these policies are translated into plans of action, it is apparent that women and other marginalised groups such as peasants, tribal groups and minorities figure only as receivers of technology transfer and not as creators of knowledge." She goes on to link technology to India's bid to gain a competitive edge in a capitalist social order.

It is disappointing that an important debate on the conflict between science for profit and the possibility of creating a model for sustainable and equitable development is largely underwritten in this anthology. Neelam Kumar admits that available empirical data on Indian women in science are scattered, and are concerned with career issues rather than women's contribution to scientific production. As editor, she had to work within these limitations, and in the ultimate analysis this is a drawback.

The research findings endorse the status quo without pressing for change. A rhetorical question, "What have these women done about these problems?", comes up with a lame answer - "The data shows how the women have made adjustments but have not tried to address their concerns in a collective way." Unfortunately, the book does not offer solutions either. I also need to mention that some of the typographical errors are glaring.

Women and Science in India: A Reader

Edited by Neelam Kumar

Oxford University Press

328pp, £21.99

ISBN 9780195697056

Published 13 November 2008

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