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Male-only programmes at four in 10 Indian scientific conferences

Written by: David Matthews
Published on: 4 Nov 2020

Speaker giving presentation at conference

Forty per cent of Indian scientific conferences fail to feature a single woman, with organisers largely ignoring calls to broaden their range of speakers, according to a project tracking panel diversity in the country.

BiasWatchIndia was set up in June by two female academics frustrated at the paucity of women at science, technology, engineering and mathematics conferences, and the results so far suggest that the country has a long way to go.

“The fact that it is up to 40 per cent really surprised us,” said Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science Centre for BioSystems Science and Engineering in Bangalore, and co-founder of BiasWatchIndia. “And this is in spite of the focus put on conferences that only feature men.”

So far, 131 conferences across eight disciplines have been analysed. BiasWatchIndia compared the proportion of female speakers with the percentage of female academics in the field overall.

In biology, 23 per cent of conference speakers were female, roughly reflecting Indian biologists as a whole.

But in mathematics and chemistry, most conferences have not featured any women.

“The vast majority of those organisers don’t engage with us, they just go quiet,” said Dr Ananthanarayanan, who founded the project alongside Shruti Muralidhar, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There had been no pick-up of the issue in Indian media so far, she added.

Organisers who set up “manels” – panels consisting only of men – offer a series of stock excuses, a kind of “manel bingo”, she said.

“The typical response we get is: ‘There aren’t many women working in this field,’” she said. “There isn’t a general acceptance that this issue exists.” Or organisers say they invited a female academic, who did not respond, she added.

The broader issue, argued Dr Ananthanarayanan, was a wider culture where a woman’s career was seen as playing “second fiddle” to her domestic role.

Even if conference speakers did reflect the gender split of Indian academia, this would still mean very few female faces on panels in some areas. In chemistry and engineering, only 8 per cent of academics are women.

“What we really want them to do is go beyond the base rate,” said Dr Ananthanarayanan, referring to the proportion of female academics in a discipline. “Because if you’re just hitting the base rate, you’re just going to continue the status quo.”

In line with other countries, India has a “leaky pipeline” of female academics. At the PhD and MPhil level, 46 per cent of researchers are female, according to figures for 2017-18 reported by The Times of India. But going up the academic career ladder, this proportion dwindles significantly.