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Science of Equality

Astrophysicist Prajval Shastri works to reduce gender disparity in the field of science, especially in physics.


As a young girl growing up in Mangaluru, Prajval Shastri used to lie on a mat in her family’s garden and watch the night sky for hours on end. “I was born a year after Sputnik I [the first artificial Earth satellite] was launched and science was in the air,” she says.

Shastri went on to pursue a career as an astrophysicist, reaching one of the highest echelons of science in India. She has also has been a champion of gender equality and women’s participation in physics. She says, the time spent as a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University, California, in 2012, was helpful to both pursuits.

Shastri has recently retired from her faculty position at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bengaluru, where she had worked for over two decades. Her core research interest was the empirical investigation of the giant black holes found in the centers of distant galaxies.

Her career illustrates the expanding opportunities for women in science in India, as well as the obstacles that remain.

After earning her undergraduate degree, Shastri pursued a master’s degree at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. It so happened that half the students in her physics class were women. At the institute as a whole, however, less than five percent of the students were female.

That kind of blatant gender imbalance is much rarer today. But, discrimination continues “in much more subtle ways,” says Shastri. If a woman scientist has children, managers will often pass her over for more important responsibilities, assuming she will devote too much time to her children. But, if the woman gets her partner to take on more childcare responsibilities and puts in extra hours at work, she is criticized for being a poor mother. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” laments Shastri.

Sexual harassment also makes universities and workplaces unwelcoming to women.

The situation has improved somewhat, says Shastri, due to gradually changing public attitudes and decisions by India’s Supreme Court which, in 1997, first directed all organizations to adopt sexual harassment guidelines. Today, the gender gap in academia has reduced. About 45 percent of science Ph.D. holders employed by academic institutions are women, though the figure is only 20 percent in physics. However, there are still very few women in senior positions and in elite institutions.

To help better the situation, Shastri remains active promoting women’s participation in physics. She is part of the Gender in Physics Working Group of the Indian Physics Association and sits on other committees as well.

Shastri won a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research fellowship to Stanford University, where she spent most of 2012 at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. She says, the year was vibrant and stimulating in several ways.

For one, the hierarchy at Stanford University was “much softer” than what she was used to in India, “which makes for a much more nurturing academic environment.” She also regularly attended interdisciplinary seminars at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research. “That was something new for me,” says Shastri. “In my institute [in India], there are only physicists. It exposed me to lots of new ideas.”

 

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.