Saturday, January 11, 2014

Of (Lab)Mice and (We)Men

I thought I'd start off the New Years' post on a funny note but that can wait. A more apt start is about a fascinating discussion today on Women in Science, hosted at IISc by the Women in Science Panel of the Indian Academy of Science. It was in part illuminating, concerning and encouraging...all presented to you here, albeit in dry prose.

Having spent the better part of my professional life in the US, one gets sensitized to gender and diversity early on. Be it simple things like using gender neutral terms in presentations or preferring the female form of a word -- e.g. "If a user needs to visit a webpage, she has to..." (or) "they have to..." (rather than) "he has to...", or more important matters like ensuring diversity (including gender diversity) when forming program committees for workshops. Initially, you do it to be politically correct and conform, but later you get sensitized to the reasons behind it and learn to appreciate the rationale. As a faculty, you go through Sexual Harassment Training [1] each year, required by law, where the distinctions between friendly banter and harassment are clearly spelt out, as well as the law and university policy on it. One misstep and the university faces a punitive lawsuit, and this threat was enough to get them to behave. Further, having a graduate advisor who effectively took up arms on behalf of her brethren sisters' cause ("brethren", yet another example of the gender bias of the English language), and having several close friends of the feminine gender pursuing their graduate studies only reinforced my awareness.

It wasn't a perfect system in the US by any means. I have encountered covert gender bias expressed by my peers in academia (e.g. "Since I mentor a female student, I have an edge in NSF proposal's broader impact"), and there was even a petty potty fight at my grad school when the female faculty understandably wanted separate ladies and gents restrooms rather than just unisex ones. But overall the system is setup to progress forward so that overt bias was not tolerated, and efforts are made to encourage a comfortable work environment that will eventually lead to equality.

Even simple things matter. We did end up with separate restrooms.

Given this, I did (do) have concerns on gender parity on moving to India, which has, in modern times, had a poor record on women's issues. The slew of sexual assaults that have been (rightly) highlighted in the media only heightens this reality. While it is easier to confront or stand up against sexual assault, the biases faced at the workplace environment are harder to discern, confront and fix, yet leave a lasting scar on a person's professional career. A couple of things that struck me in this regard when I joined IISc: (1) the heads of departments are addressed as Chairman -- not ChairPERSON or just Chair, but ChairMAN by default, and (2) there is not a single female faculty in my department. This got me digging for some stats, gleaned off the IISc web pages.

IISc has on the order of 500 faculty spread across about 35 departments and degree granting centres (both treated as academic units). Of these, by my unscientific (but laborious) count, 93% are male and just 7% are female! Three of the ~35 units have a woman chairperson, while the rest have chairMEN. This ratio matches the overall faculty gender ratio. Of these, only two MALE chairs use the title ChairPERSON (Centre for Climate Change, and Centre for Nano Science & Engg, both newly formed), while the rest refer to themselves as ChairMAN if they're male and ChairPERSON otherwise.

Beyond the titular distinctions, 15 units have ZERO female faculty. As might be expected, the units under Biological Science division have the best representation, with an average of 25% female faculty ratio and it includes all the three women who are Chairs. Of the five departments under Chemical Sciences, there is only one female faculty. Surprisingly, while Civil and Mechanical Engineering, traditionally male dominated in college admissions, have one female faculty each (not good enough but still present), the Electrical Division, which includes departments like Computer Science and Electronics & Communication, have just two female faculty out of 90! This is far below the female student ratio you see in these departments. You can delve into these stats more in the end note but the writing is clear that the status quo at IISc is no good [5].

The Women in Science panel I attended was more broad based, and go beyond cold, bleak statistics into the gender perceptions and biases that exist in the broader scientific community. First off, the original meeting room got packed full well before the meeting started. We have to move to a much larger hall that could hold the 50+ people, mostly science majors and some faculty. It was evidently among the best attended talks in the WIS series. The panel was presided by Prof. Rohini Godbole from IISc and included Prof. Jocelyn Burnell from Oxford, an eminent astro-physicist who first discovered radio pulsars -- for which her advisor was awarded the Nobel prize (and she was left out!!).

The panel gave both an Anglo and an Indian perspective. I'm paraphrasing some observations, anecdotes and comments that I overheard, all of them by women...
  • Often, women in senior positions are the only women at that level in that group. So they end up having to play by the "boys' rules" or act like them. So they subtly transform into "SheMales" or "WeMen" to fit in. How do you retain your femininity or female identify, and yet be in a professional environment?
  • Of the female students in the audience (50+), about 75% did not have a male sibling. There was a sense that not having a male sibling may help parent focus attention on the girl(s) -- particularly in rural towns where the majority of India lives. On the other hand, there was a thought that growing up with brothers helps women learn how to be like/work with men as they rise up the ladder.
  • As girls advance to higher education, the pressure from parents and society to drop off increases. From high school to college to grad school to postdoc...there is a race between the biological clock and the career clock, with pressure to "settle down".
  • Female students for the most part do not experience serious discrimination at the college level. The fact that there are not many female faculty as role models does not seem to dissuade them from considering a scientific career. But the gender biases start becoming apparent as they progress in their career path.
  • Anecdote: A female student was being encouraged by her mentor to pursue graduate studies in biology, but in a jocular manner, he remarks that since the research involves animal studies with mice and simians, "if the animals act up and you're afraid, shout out for the guys to come and help you". This comment felt insulting.
  • Discussing concerns with friendly mentors of either gender can help highlight issues, and bring them to broader attention. Sometimes, the person inflicting a bias may not even realize it and may be willing to change if educated. There is an online Harvard study that examines a person's natural biases [2].
  • Women tend to be over-analytical about their professional choices and actions, and consequently, sometimes, take disabling career moves.
  • Women in the medical profession have more societal acceptance, say when having to visit a patient in the middle of the night, compared to women in other sciences where going at 2AM to the lab to check on a sample is frowned upon at home.
  • Lilavati's Daughters [3] is a collection of essays and biographies of women scientists in India. An inspiring read. One tangential take-away by a student who read it was that women have to be utterly passionate about doing research if they want to succeed in their scientific career, and she ended up quitting her PhD because she felt she could not meet those high standards. Why can men put in a normal effort and end up being good scientists but women have to be super-humans to get scientific recognition?
  • There are programs by India's DST and DBT to encourage women in science [4]. A majority of the women do NOT want gender-based affirmative action. They want to progress because they qualify, not because of someones handout. The risk that one's success will be attributed to "quotas" rather than true potential outweighs the possible benefits of affirmative action.
In the UK,
  • A male who is aggressive is seen as "energetic" while a female is seen as "pushy".
  • It is common for women faculty to serve part-time appointments while they have to raise a family. The university offers the option. However, this consideration is not given to male faculty. There are also government programs that encourage women to return back to the workforce, say in their 40's, even after they've had an extended break. This is also available to men, and prevents accusations of reverse-discrimination.
  • While the popular notion may be that women are held back because of the career choices they make in favour of their families, there is evidence that even when women remain single or without kids, their career growth is curtailed compared to their male peers.
  • Universities are required to collect statistics on the number of female job applicants and job offers, students enrolled, number of buildings named after women, number of portraits of women in the school hallways, etc., and are given a score card of Gold, Silver, or Bronze etc. based on their gender parity. Funding agencies require institutions to meet a minimum threshold.

To conclude this elongated post, I'm irked by the subtle yet vexing question on what role men can play, i.e., not just by being un-biased or by standing up against discrimination, but in more active roles that promote gender sensitivity. It is tricky. You don't want to play too forward a role for fear of reaffirming the stereotype that men dominate (or worse, have your intentions misconstrued). For e.g., there were about 10% of men in the 50+ audience, and the first question, from a audience waiting to warm up, comes from a male student. And immediately, the female student next to me exclaims, "Oh no, a guy beats us to this too!". At the same time, since we men are part of the problem, we need to be part of the solution too. More on this as we make progress at IISc over the coming months (years?)...

[1] Sample Sexual Harassment Training,
[2] Harvard Implicit Bias Test,
[3] Lilavati's Daughters: The Women Scientists of India,
[4] DST & DBT scholarship programs for women scientists,,
[5] Unscientific Statistics on IISc Faculty Gender Ratio (collected from active IISc Webpages)

Chemistry* 12 4
Ecological Sciences* 10 5
Neuroscience* 6 2
Microbiology 12 4
Molecular Biophysics 11 2
Molecular Reproduction 9 3
Inorganic Chem 21 0
Materials Research 12 0
NMR Center 7 0
Organic Chem 12 0
Solid State Chem 19 1
Electronic Design 20 0
Computer Sci 26 1
Electrical Comm 22 0
Electrical Engg 20 1
Astronomy 4 1
Contemporary Stud 4 0
Cryogenic 3 0
High Energy Phys 8 1
Instrumentation 11 1
Math 21 2
Physics 26 1
Earth Sci 11 2
Aero 26 1
Product Design 5 1
Chem Engg 11 0
Materials Engg 21 0
Microscopy 6 0
Mechanical 22 1
Civil 22 1
Atmospheric Sci 10 0
Sustainable Tech ?
Climate Change 3 0
Nano Science 7 0
Supercomputer 18 0
Management 5 2
Urban Planning 19 1
TOTAL 48238

*Department has a woman chairperson

[6] The original "Of Mice and Men" by Steinbeck talks of dreams, loneliness and powerlessness. Maybe there is a lesson there?

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