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Women and Science: How Far Apart?

The third annual Women in Science workshop in New Delhi aimed at inspiring girls to challenge stereotypes.


As a little girl, Shivani Bhandari often looked out into the vastness of the night sky, dreaming of becoming an astronomer. As a young adult, at a workshop on promotion of gender equity in scientific careers, Bhandari informed that she is on the way to turning her dream into reality, with support from her family. “My parents are ready to bear the cost of higher education via loans,” she says.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from KIIT (Kamrah Institute of Information Technology) college in Haryana, Bhandari is applying to several U.S. colleges for an M.S. in astrophysics and astronomy.

“My father doesn’t know much about the concepts of astronomy but he is always very enthusiastic about asking me questions and observes eclipses or meteor showers with me. After studying and coming back to India, I want to encourage other women to learn about astronomy,” says Bhandari, who dreams of working with NASA.

She joined fellow female students pursuing sciences such as forensics and zoology, early career and senior women scientists, women from academia, nongovernmental organizations and policymakers at the Women in Science workshop in New Delhi in September. Organized by the U.S. Embassy with support from the Indian Department of Science and Technology and the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum, the workshop examined India’s climate for women in science and the global initiatives for steering them to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Lessons to share
Participants agreed that governments across the world have an important role in creating a level playing field for both men and women.

Workshop Voices
  • Gender divide cuts across all sections and socioeconomic classes.
  • Men and women bring different skill sets to the table. Women multitask effectively.
  • More women leaders are needed. Not because of gender parity but for the health of an enterprise.
  • Need to establish a roadmap for government and private sector regarding re-entry of women in scientific careers.
  • Infrastructure development is part of the solution for rural inaccessibility issues regarding science education.
  • Cannot ignore the potential for change for women who are empowered with tools of science and technology.

Students pose questions to astronaut Sunita Williams during a live Web interaction at the workshop. Photograph by Hemant Bhatnagar

Blair Hall, Minister-Counselor of Economic, Environment, Science and Technology Affairs at the U.S. Embassy, said the issue was an important subject for the United States, “since societal and gender challenges are not unique to any one country.”

T. Ramasami, Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, said the Government of India is seeking answers to the same pressing questions. He suggested that while “India’s policies may have adopted a gender neutral approach…we need to ask the question [whether] we need a gender sensitive approach.”

Shirley Malcom, co-chair of the Gender Advisory Board of the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology for Development, added that “while the solutions have to be locally based, both India and the United States have a lot to learn from each other. One of the biggest challenges is…in implementation.”

“I believe that we can share strategies for building support from family and community, for identifying policy barriers that might inadvertently depress participation, strategies for examining practices in universities that can be undertaken to bring more women into faculty and leadership roles,” said Malcom, who is also the director of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (http://www.aaas.org/).

Choosing a career in science
According to a report prepared by the White House Council on Women and Girls in March 2011, while women’s gains in educational attainment in America “have significantly outpaced those of men over the last 40 years, …differences can be seen in the fields that women pursue in college; female students are less well represented than men in science and technology-related fields.”

“Women continue to spend more of their time in household activities or caring for other family members,” says the Women in America report, which, according to President Barack Obama, is the most comprehensive description of the status of women in America in 50 years. 

“Partly because it is so tricky to juggle kids and a career, many highly able women opt for jobs with predictable hours, such as human resources or accounting. They also gravitate toward fields where their skills are less likely to become obsolete if they take a career break…,” says an article documenting the issues women face in the workplace on www.economist.com.

American astronaut Sunita Williams, who participated in a live video session at the workshop, admitted that even in the United States women’s involvement in scientific careers falls behind men even though there are plenty of opportunities. She encouraged Indian students pursuing a career in science to acquire hands-on experience in their desired field to establish a clearer picture of their goals.

Williams’ employer, NASA, set up Women@NASA (http://women.nasa.gov) in March, a Web site aimed at developing the next generation of women scientists, engineers and explorers.

In one of the 32 videos and essays from women working at the agency, Indian American scientist Sharmila Bhattacharya says success for her is not measured by medals or money but by seeing her experiments flown in space, a dream of flight fuelled by her father, a pilot, who told her that being a girl should not deter her from doing anything.

“At the time, most of the pilots I saw around me were men, so I asked him, ‘Can I even be a pilot since I’m a girl?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you can be absolutely anything you want to be,’ ” says Bhattacharya. “Now…I realize how important it was for me to hear those words as an impressionable young child. It made me believe that if I worked hard, I could achieve my goals, whatever they may be.”