From where I sit - The figures behind discrimination

June 4, 2009

While women's participation in higher education and research is usually measured through quantitative data, it is qualitatively different to look at them through individual lives.

An insight into this can be had by juxtaposing statistics on Indian women scientists with a collection of biographical and autobiographical vignettes, Lilavati's Daughters (2008), which is so called because Lilavati, the daughter of a 12th-century mathematician, is said to be the first woman student of mathematics in India.

The book has been published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, which is ironic, given that only 5.25 per cent of its fellows are women. Still, this is a significant increase from the abysmal 2.98 per cent figure of 1995. It is also more encouraging than the current situation in the Indian National Science Academy, where 3.2 per cent of fellows are women.

Senior faculty positions held by women in national institutes and universities can be as low as 7.7 per cent and nowhere exceeds 25 per cent.

Curiously, most women scientists who write about themselves in Lilavati's Daughters show no overt preoccupation with how they negotiated such barriers. In their accounts, the advantages of being born in families where education was cherished, inspirational classics such as Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters, and the government-funded All-India "science talent" scholarships, figure far more frequently than the prejudices of Indian patriarchy. An exception is the mathematician Rajinder Hans-Gill, who is an elected fellow of the three major science academies of India. She studied initially at home since there were no schools for girls in Punjab's villages where she lived. Later, for a while, Professor Hans-Gill went to a school for boys by donning a turban and disguising herself as a boy.

The characteristic approach, though, is a reticent one, summed up in the persona of Anna Mani, a physicist who became deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department. Dr Mani was born - in 1913 - when the number of women enrolled in colleges was below a thousand. But when asked about women in Indian science, she told her interviewer: "My being a woman had absolutely no bearing on what I chose to do with my life ... It must be getting difficult for women to do science these days. We had no such problems in our time."

One of her predecessors in science, Anandibai Joshee, the first Indian woman to qualify as a medical doctor (in 1887), was more candid. Dr Joshee articulated both anguish at suffering verbal and physical assault by her husband, and indebtedness to him since he was instrumental in sending her to study for a medical degree in America. This complexity emerges from the letters that she wrote to her husband from America.

Is it possible that the denial in Dr Mani's statements and those of other women scientists may be related to the fact that they are engaged in a very public act, of relating their life histories, and imagine that their achievements would shine less if alloyed with inequality? The answer is unclear to me, although by writing about their achievements as women rather than as scientists only, their achievements would not be diminished but enhanced, since these would be stories of successful resistance against gender barriers.

First-person accounts usually articulate elements that get lost in the statistical majority. This is one case, though, where numbers communicate discrimination more effectively than the microcosm of individual lives.

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